While watching TV one night, Mike LaRosa turned to his wife, Joanne, and out of the blue said, "Hey, maybe I should get a flu shot."
"You?" she joked.
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Joanne and the couple's three children got flu vaccines every year. But LaRosa, a healthy 46-year-old union electrician and youth sports coach, never bothered.
"I never get the flu," he said, quickly brushing off the idea. "What do I need it for?"
Just a few weeks after that conversation, on Jan. 4, LaRosa came down with such a bad case of the H1N1 flu virus, he had to be put in a medically induced coma for 13 days.
He teetered on the brink of death in the intensive care unit of Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, and a few times, doctors instructed Joanne to gather the family because they didn't think he'd make it through the night. The hospital's priest visited daily and prayed at his bedside.
But in what some doctors call "a medical miracle," LaRosa's condition slowly started to improve. He is now back home, planning to return to work in a few weeks, and is expected to make a full recovery. The ICU staff nicknamed him "Miracle Mike."
"There's no logical explanation for it, other than it's a miracle," said LaRosa, of Schaumburg. "When I was in the ICU, I think God was holding one hand, and my (deceased) dad was holding the other."
The life-changing experience has turned the LaRosa family into advocates for the flu shot. If the flu can almost kill a healthy, young dad like Mike, then anyone is vulnerable.
'One of the sickest'
"Had (LaRosa) gotten his flu shot, he wouldn't have been in this position," said Dr. Guy Dugan, one of the team of Alexian Brothers ICU doctors who treated him. "The flu can be a devastating illness. This can happen in a not-bad flu season. It can attack young people, healthy people. After 30 years in medicine, (LaRosa) was one of the sickest patients I've ever had. Why does a young, healthy guy become one of the sickest people? It brings home the point that you need to get the flu shot."
At this time of year, though, people aren't focused on the flu, or flu shots. The illness' peak period is usually late fall and early winter. But doctors warn the flu is deadly year-round, and people who didn't get a flu shot in the fall should get one now.
While this has been considered a "minimal" flu season in Illinois, 701 people were admitted to ICUs and 90 people died from the flu statewide in the 12 weeks ending March 22, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Most people don't get as sick as LaRosa did, but they certainly can, Dugan said. LaRosa's H1N1 flu virus spawned pneumonia, requiring intense body cooling and breathing treatments. A high-speed oscillator was needed to pump 300 breaths per minute into his lungs. The average person takes 10 to 12 breaths per minute.
It was after doctors tried a risky move -- to flip LaRosa on his front side, allowing the fluid to drain from his lungs -- that he started showing signs of improvement.
"It's amazing he pulled through," said friend Gus Tsoulos of Schaumburg.
First, a cough
It all started after Christmas when LaRosa developed a fever and a cough. His doctor diagnosed bronchitis and gave him an antibiotic. He didn't get better. So a few days later, he went to the emergency room. Doctors sent him home with instructions to keep taking his antibiotics and treat the fever.
His fever remained high, and when he started having trouble breathing, he returned to the emergency room. This time, doctors found plunging oxygen levels, high blood pressure and fluid-filled lungs. He was brought to the ICU and put into a medically induced coma in an effort to stabilize him.
Dugan, Dr. Sarah Mann, Dr. Imran Nisar and the rest of Alexian Brothers' ICU team kept a close watch over LaRosa. "I was scared for him," admits Dugan, medical director of the hospital's critical care and neurocritical care. "Alexian Brothers' ICU is staffed with intensive care specialists 24/7, and we all watched him diligently."
An army of LaRosa's friends and family -- usually numbering 40 or more -- gathered every day in the ICU waiting area. A few even stayed overnight, talking to him despite his comatose state and trying to keep Joanne's spirits up. Fearing he was going to die, she refused to leave the hospital.
Their kids -- Joe, 16, Danny, 11, and Ally, 8 -- also stepped up to become positive, strong forces in his recovery.
"No one that age should have to see their father in that shape," said LaRosa, who at one point had more than a dozen IV tubes leading into one main tube in his neck. "It was just overwhelming how good people were."
LaRosa's story inspired many of his friends to immediately go and get flu shots.
Tsoulos had the same mindset as LaRosa. He passed on his employer's offer for a free flu shot, figuring he didn't need it. If he did get the flu, he figured he'd "just be down for a week." "Seeing Mike in that condition completely changed my mind," Tsoulos said.
Not only did Tsoulos get the flu shot for the first time in his life, but he took both his parents, who are in their 70s, to get their first flu vaccinations.
"I tell everybody now, 'If you think you're going to get sick from the flu shot, you're going to get 10 times sicker if you don't get it,'" Tsoulos said.
LaRosa's life has changed in many ways since his flu battle. His faith in God has strengthened, he tells his wife he loves her twice as often, and he finds joy in everyday tasks like picking up the kids from school. He sometimes questions whether all of this happened for a reason.
"Why did God say, 'It's not your time. I'm not gonna take you now'? It makes you scratch your head," he said. "I guess, maybe my story can help another person."