Torbay Health Care Assistant encourages flu vaccination after near-death experience

Photo: Laura Spacagna
Laura was woken up from her coma on Christmas morning

Published: 11 November 2016

A Torbay Hospital Health Care Assistant (HCA), who ended up in a coma after contracting flu, is calling on all those eligible for the free vaccination to have the jab now.

Laura Spacagna, age 32, is a HCA in the Endoscopy department at Torbay Hospital.

161111-laura-flu-5During a pre-Christmas family holiday to France in December 2014, Laura started to feel unwell. “I just wasn’t feeling right, I felt exhausted and had to return to our hotel room during the day to rest” Laura explained.

On returning to the UK a couple of days later, on 8 December, Laura went to the doctors: “I was told by the GP that I had flu and to take ibuprofen, cough medicine and paracetamol to get me through that night. The following day I couldn’t get out of bed. At 6pm, I went to the toilet and happened to look in the mirror – my lips and nails had gone blue, I was struggling to breathe. I rang my Mum to tell her and she was really alarmed and we called an ambulance.”

What followed was a frightening sequence of events that neither Laura nor her family could have predicted.

161111-laura-flu-2Laura recalled: “When the ambulance arrived, I was taken into resuscitation at Torbay Hospital to have bloods taken and an x-ray. Straight away they told me I had double pneumonia and was septic so I was immediately taken to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). My oxygen levels were 75 per cent and I was struggling. I was put on to a ventilator and I had a catheter and a nasogastric tube inserted.

“They tried lots of different methods to help improve my oxygen levels but I did not improve and my organs began to fail. On 10 December, I was put in to an induced coma as I wasn’t responding to any treatment. My family was told that the next few hours were crucial and that I might not make it – I had a 20 per cent chance of survival.”

As a last resort, Laura was ‘blue-lighted’ to Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, as they have some specialist equipment that can specifically help those in similar situations. Once at Papworth, Laura was put on to an ‘ECMO machine’* which is a technique to take over the function of a patient’s heart and lungs.

“My family were informed that this was not a cure and may not be successful – the machine can only be used as a temporarily measure.” Laura added.

After ten days of being in Papworth, still in a coma, Laura’s family were told the news that they had been hoping for – the ECMO treatment had been successful and she was being taken back to ICU at Torbay Hospital. Four days later, on Christmas morning, Laura was woken up from her coma. “I was totally unaware of what had happened and the lost time of the weeks I had been in a coma.” Laura reminisced. “All I remembered was going in to resuscitation at Torbay and thinking to myself ‘they’ll just put me on a drip’, but after that I don’t remember a thing until I was woken out of the coma almost two weeks later.

161111-laura-flu-6“I never get ill – this was the first time I’ve ever been really poorly. I always thought it would never happen to me. I’m very fit and healthy, I go to the gym or go for a run five times a week; I like to keep fit, I always have done!

“When I first woke up I couldn’t walk, I had pins and needles in my feet and that sensation still hasn’t gone.”

Laura then started intensive rehabilitation as she had to learn to walk again. She had muscle wastage and had lost a stone and a half of weight. After another week, on 5 January, Laura was discharged from hospital but had to be looked after by her family at her parent’s house as it was going to be a long, slow recovery ahead.

Laura’s Mum, Jan Spacagna, is a Laparoscopic Nurse Practitioner at Torbay Hospital. She recalled: “When we found out how seriously ill Laura was we were devastated, the whole family was devastated. Mylie, Laura’s daughter, was only three years old at the time. We just couldn’t believe what was happening and the thought of her not surviving…” Jan trailed off with tears in her eyes.

“If it wasn’t for the care given in ICU and the quick referral to Papworth for ECMO treatment it might have been a different story. Life just stopped and it was like a dream. We couldn’t understand how someone so young, fit and healthy could all of a sudden be so poorly.

“There was so much disruption to family life over the Christmas / New Year period; we were told we shouldn’t leave her as she was critical. My husband and other daughter looked after Mylie the whole time as I was at Laura’s bedside with her fiancé, Torryn.

“Christmas Day… well it was the best present we could have ever wished for – Laura was off the ventilator and awake, it was just wonderful! The care given by every single person throughout Laura’s treatment was outstanding and we are eternally grateful to them for Laura still being with us today.”

161111-laura-flu-7Flu is a common infectious viral illness spread by coughs and sneezes. It can be very unpleasant, but people will usually begin to feel better within about a week. Flu – short for influenza – circulates all year round, but it is especially common in winter, which is why it is also known as ‘seasonal flu’.

Some of the main symptoms of flu include: a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above; tiredness and weakness; a headache; general aches and pains; and a dry, chesty cough. However, the flu vaccination by injection, commonly known as the ‘flu jab’ is available every year on the NHS to protect adults (and some children) at risk of flu and its complications. Specific groups of people who should have the vaccination every year include pregnant women, people with diabetes or respiratory conditions, carers of elderly people, and children aged from two, up to and including those in school year three** via the nasal spray vaccination programme.

“I hadn’t had the flu vaccination – I am never ill so I never thought that I would be susceptible to becoming as poorly as I did.” Laura said. “So now I want to raise awareness to everyone to say that if you are offered the flu vaccine please take it because it doesn’t matter what age you are or how fit and healthy you think you are; the fact that you are offered it is because you are at greater risk and I wouldn’t want to see this happen to anyone else.

“Everyone who is offered it should get the jab, if not to prevent yourself from getting the flu, to prevent spreading it to your loved ones or anyone in our care at the hospital – remember that the flu vaccine can save a life.”

Jan added: “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we had to go through as a family. I’ve always had my flu vaccination but I now make the time to do it as soon as the vaccine comes in.”

161111-laura-flu-3Dr Rob Dyer, Medical Director of Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Laura’s story clearly demonstrates how important it is for those eligible to receive the flu vaccination to vaccinate themselves. Flu can be incredibly serious and affect even the fittest and healthiest of people yet a lot of people assume that they will be fine and ‘it’s only flu’.

“There are many myths that surround flu vaccination yet the flu vaccine is the single best protection against flu. The flu jab cannot give you the flu as the adult vaccine doesn’t contain live viruses. A very small number of people may experience side effects such as aching muscles, but this is simply the immune system responding to the vaccine. You need the vaccine every year as it is adjusted each year to reflect the strains of the virus circulating.

“We are particularly keen for all of our frontline health and care staff to be vaccinated each year as, without any knowledge of it happening, they could give flu to the patients/service users that they are taking care of as well as their work colleagues; potentially causing severe complications or even death. A recent study indicates that up to 77 per cent of people with flu have no symptoms. I really would encourage all those eligible to receive the vaccine to do so to help you to stay well this winter.”

Members of the public not eligible to receive a free flu vaccine can visit numerous supermarkets and pharmacies in the local area and pay a small fee for the vaccine should they wish to inoculate themselves.

Public Health England estimated that an average 8,000 people die from flu in England each year. Some years that figure reaches 14,000.

Further information on the flu vaccination, and the specific groups of people who should have the vaccination, can be found on NHS Choices:

Further information:

Photos show Laura whilst she was in intensive care, Laura receiving her flu vaccination this year and Laura at work with her mum, Jan.

*The ECMO machine will drain the blood from the vein, add the oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide, warm the blood and then return the blood to the artery and “pump” the blood through the body. This method allows the blood to “bypass” the heart and lungs, allowing the patient to rest and get better.

** In the autumn/winter of 2016-17, the vaccine will be available free on the NHS for eligible children, including:

  • children aged two, three and four on August 31 2016 – that is, children born between September 1 2011 and August 31 2014
  • children in school years one, two and three
  • in some parts of the country, all primary school-aged children will be offered the vaccine as part of a test programme
  • children aged 2 to 17 with long-term health conditions
  • Over the next few years the programme will be extended gradually to include older children.