By DANIEL HERATY
DEARBORN – 50-year-old Dearborn resident Diane Ranger, a former employee of DTE Energy, called herself a “fitness freak.”
“I didn’t smoke cigarettes, ever,” she said. “I went to the gym and I really watch what I eat.”
Following a November 2010 family vacation in Cancun, Mexico, with her husband, Curt, and their then-2-year-old daughter, she was shopping in an area Target when she said she began to feel strange.
“I started shaking uncontrollably,” she said. “And I broke out into a fever, with no warning. It just came on.”
Recalling the events leading to her near-fatal bout with the flu, Ranger realized her symptoms warranted closer scrutiny.
Not happy about getting sick after returning from vacation, she went home and started her normal flu routine: rest and plenty of fluids. Not long after, a bad cough and head congestion prompted her to see a doctor.
“I said, ‘I feel horrible. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’” she said. “(The doctor) thought I had the flu and bronchitis.”
The most alarming symptoms, she said, made themselves known the morning of Dec. 8.
“Every drop of water I would drink I was vomiting,” she said. “There was no liquid in me. My face was no longer pale white, it was death-gray. It was the kind of gray you see when a person dies.”
After experiencing shortness of breath and difficulty walking, she told her husband to take her to the emergency room. Once in the hospital, she was given oxygen and underwent a battery of tests, which revealed something was attacking her heart. A cardiologist ordered an immediate heart catheterization.
“When I woke up, I had a heart pump attached to me,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a heart pump was. It was saving my life.”
Doctors discovered Rangers’ arteries were clear and no one could figure out what was causing her heart to fail. The next day, Dec. 9, the chief of Infectious Diseases at Oakwood Hospital, James Sunstrom, said she had traces of Bird Flu, a strain first identified in humans in 1997.
In Ranger’s case, the virus caused cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body.
Ranger had no idea the illness was attacking her heart. While she was in the hospital, doctors told her they may not know the extent of the damage for three months after the diagnosis.
“Doctors told me, ‘You could either stay the same forever, or you could get better,” she said, “‘or you could go completely 100 percent normal, or you could get a lot worse and need a heart transplant.”
Although her family also caught the virus and showed symptoms, doctors told Ranger that in some cases, the virus attacks vital organs without warning. She said doctors told her a flu shot before leaving for her trip likely would have prevented the disease.
“Even though we all got it, they only got the flu,” she said. “What shocked me was I did everything right, but I didn’t get a flu shot. It was one-in-a million.”
Three months after contracting the virus and beginning to take six medications for it, an electrocardiogram test revealed Ranger’s heart was rapidly improving. After undergoing cardiac rehab for a further three months, in June the results came in, and she got the news she was hoping for.
The Chief of Cardiology at Oakwood Hospital, Dr. Samir Dabbous, looked at her and said if she didn’t tell him what happened, he would have never known that anything was wrong. Ranger said doctors credited her good health with helping her recovery.
“I was in a complete state of shock, just like I was on Dec. 8,” she said. “But this time, the shock was euphoric.”
Spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta Jeff Dimond said in an email various flu strands kill about 18,000 people per year, adding most patients have compromised immune systems and other respiratory health issues.
According to a 2010 report by the CDC, people can prevent the spread of the flu by taking a few simple steps, including covering their noses and mouths with a tissue when they sneeze, washing hands with soap and water, avoiding close contact with sick people and following other public health advice.
With a new lease on life, Ranger said she exercises every day and uses her experience as self-motivation.
“There are days when I don’t want to go to the gym,” she said. “And I think to myself, ‘Diane, you are so blessed to be able to get into a car and drive yourself to the gym.’”
As for others who are suffering from flu-like symptoms, she said people should listen to what their bodies are telling them.
“You don’t have to get a flu shot,” she said. “But if you don’t, just recognize the symptoms.”