Surviving swine flu

CAMANO ISLAND — For three weeks, Steve Wolfe wavered between life and death.

“They said I almost died four or five times,” he said.

His fever spiked at 104 degrees. His heartbeat peaked at 220 beats a minute.

“For days and days, he was right on the edge” said Dr. Mohammed Alhyr

aba, a critical care physician at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. “We had very little room to maneuver with.”

Steve Wolfe was sickened with swine flu in late

February. His 31-year-old twin brother, Mike Wolfe, became ill about 36 hours later.

At first they thought: “We’ll fight through this; it’s the flu,” Steve Wolfe remembers.

But there was something different about it. “The cough,” he said. “It felt like our ribs were cracking.”

His grandfather drove him to a Stanwood medical clinic. He was quickly ushered into an isolation room. Staff said he should be hospitalized immediately.

It was the afternoon of Friday, March 4. By the time he arrived at the hospital, his lungs could barely function.

He had developed pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, which can be caused by influenza. It limits the lungs’ ability to provide oxygen to the body, triggering a cascade of other major health problems.

Without good oxygen delivery “most of the organs will suffer,” Alhyraba said.

Steve Wolfe was put into a medically induced coma for 22 days. “Because his lungs were in a state of almost complete failure, the only way to maintain lung function was to take over with breathing machines and give his lungs time to heal,” Alhyraba said.

Steve Wolfe remembers little of what happened to him during that time, except for the vivid dreams. “Good dreams, most of them,” he said.

In one, his parents wrote both him and his brother a check to go to Las Vegas. In another, he was talking to a friend, Derrick. As Steve Wolfe briefly awakened from his groggy, medication-induced stupor, he told a friend, “I just saw Derrick.”

It was hard to distinguish between what was a dream and what was reality, he said.

“I didn’t realize I had been in a coma.”

It took several more days before he began piecing together what had happened. One of the last memories he has of his brother is when they were sitting at his grandparents’ house on Camano Island watching TV.

Meanwhile, on March 5, an ambulance had taken his brother, Mike, to the hospital. He, too, was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit and put on life support.

“They went into full-blown lung failure and required every single tool that we have to support their breathing,” Alhyraba said.

Initially, Steve Wolfe said, his twin brother had refused to go the hospital. He said he probably would have reacted the same way, thinking: “It’s just the flu and pneumonia.”

On March 27, Steve Wolfe was transferred from the intensive care unit to the hospital’s rehabilitation center.

When he was admitted to the hospital, he weighed 307 pounds. The three-week battle for his life robbed his body of 77 pounds. It left him weak. Doctors prescribed physical therapy to help strengthen him.

Steve Wolfe was discharged March 31. The first place he went to was his brother’s bedside.

Mike’s condition, though, had turned for the worse. His kidneys failed. His heart stopped. Medical staff resuscitated him “but there was too much against him,” Alhyraba said.

About 4:40 a.m. April 2, Steve Wolfe suddenly awoke from a light sleep. He immediately sensed something was wrong. He jumped up to be next to his brother, who died seconds later.

“I’m glad I was right next to him when it happened,” Steve Wolfe said. “But I don’t know if I’ll ever get that memory out of my mind.

“We would talk every day. We were twins — best friends,” he said.

The brothers graduated from Stanwood High School in 1998. Mike attended Skagit Valley College. Steve was recruited to play baseball for the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.

Steve Wolfe said that both he and his brother lost jobs in the bad economy. He had worked in sales. His brother had worked in aviation in Alaska. When they got sick, they had been staying at their family home on Camano Island until its sale could be completed.

He always assumed his brother would someday be on the pro golf tour. Mike Wolfe had briefly attended a golf academy in California.

Steve Wolfe has returned to Camano Island, regaining his strength and preparing a speech for his brother’s memorial, scheduled for Saturday in Stanwood.

Less than two weeks have passed since he was discharged from the hospital. He still has pain in his legs and his ribs. He’s sometimes short of breath when he stands.

Doctors told him his recovery could take three to four weeks.

The first in a blizzard of bills for their medical care began arriving while Wolfe and his brother were still hospitalized. Neither of them had health insurance.

Stanwood and Camano Island residents have rallied to the family’s cause, distributing donation jars at area businesses and organizing a fundraising dinner and auction scheduled for April 23.

Steve Wolfe said he has been overwhelmed by the response. “I didn’t know how many people cared,” he said. “I don’t even know what to say. People coming out of the blue that I haven’t known in 15 years.”

He said he has no idea how he and his brother were exposed to the flu.

Neither he nor his brother had ever gotten flu shots. “I don’t know how many signs (for flu shots) we walked by … and didn’t even think about it. We had never been super sick with the flu,” he said.

“My biggest regret is we could have paid $20 each for a flu shot and this never would have happened.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com

Memorial, fundraiser

A memorial service for Michael Wolfe of Camano Island, who died of swine flu, is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday.

A spaghetti dinner and silent and live auctions will raise money to help with medical bills for Michael Wolfe and his twin brother, Steve Wolfe, is scheduled for 1 p.m. April 23. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for children.

The memorial and the fundraising dinner will be at the Stanwood American Legion Post 92, 26921 88th Ave. NW. Donations for the auction are needed. Call 360-387-5420 for information.

Friends have established a Facebook page for the Wolfe brothers: bit.ly/hIk2kl.

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