How a simple 'cold' almost killed a new mum
NEW mum Kate Bellert has been to hell and back, and she's thanking a large team of Rockhampton Hospital staff for saving her life.
"I literally owe them everything," she said on the last of her 70 days in hospital after Influenza A nearly claimed her life two days after giving birth.
Kate, 41, spent seven weeks in Rockhampton Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, and the doctors and nurses are now "some of my favourite people".
After another three weeks in the Medical Unit, and intensive therapy with speech pathologists, physiotherapists and help from social workers, Kate is ready to leave her hospital friends and start a new life with husband Jeff and daughters Skylar (19 months) and Lexi (11 weeks).
Towards the last week of Kate's pregnancy with Lexi she became sick with what she thought was a cold.
She went to hospital as planned on August 10 and gave birth by caesarean section in the Surgical Unit at Mater Hospital Rockhampton, where she is a nurse and her husband Jeff is a wardsman.
After the birth she remembers being collected from recovery, but the next two days are a blur. Kate has a vague recollection of an ambulance transfer in the middle of the night, and then the glass doors of the ICU at Rockhampton Hospital, followed by specialist Intensivist Dr Jaco Poggenpoel's serious face as he assessed her.
"I remember getting very scared," she said.
She's now piecing together parts of her hospital stay which she thought at the time were dreams.
"I remember the clocks and the infusion pump beside the bed. I remember trying to reach for it to turn it off because I thought it might mean I could go home.
"We were like prisoners and I had to pass certain standards to be allowed to go home. I couldn't lift my head off the pillow.
"The ICU nurses were so awesome. Nothing was any trouble. Each nurse felt like they were your friend for the day. You were their priority and they were your voice.
"When I literally couldn't talk they would relay to the doctors. They were my best advocates."
Intensive Care Director Dr David Austin said the team were very concerned for Kate.
"She was desperately unwell. She required a combination of complex ventilation and yet she continued to deteriorate," he said.
"We spoke to our colleagues in Brisbane regarding transfer for ECMO (heart lung bypass) however she was too sick to transport and would not have survived a transfer to Brisbane."
Kate was in a prone position (face-down ventilation) to try to improve oxygen levels and was given nitric oxide gas to dilate blood vessels in her lungs.
"These doctors, they are smart beyond belief, but they're also so compassionate," Kate said. "Doctors can be quite clinical at times and distant, but these guys were always compassionate."
"They were very good to me," Jeff said. "They kept me updated."
"We are so impressed with the whole ICU team from David as director to the nurses/physios all the way to the cleaners."
Because Kate had a tracheostomy and had been intubated for so long, she had severe dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and worked with speech pathologists to learn to swallow again without risk of aspiration.
After intensive swallowing rehabilitation Kate was thrilled to reach her goal of being able to drink water.
"I had two main goals while I was in hospital. I wanted to be able to have a drink of cold water, and I wanted to go home to my husband and my girls," she said.
She has a little way to go with swallowing, and is working on chewing practice so that she can eat more than a thin puree. However has made dramatic progress in the past week.
"I can now shower and dress myself and walk up and down stairs," she said.
"One of the hardest things when you are that sick and that vulnerable is you can't communicate with people, and it's very scary.
"The nurses and doctors in ICU sat there as long as it took to ask all the questions we wanted to ask which helped a lot to take away some of that fear."
Dr Austin said he was incredibly proud of the care the whole ICU team delivers to patients like Kate.
Speech pathologists organised a Text to Speech application for Kate's phone, so when she could type, she could communicate.
"That was my lifesaver for a long time," she said.
Speech pathologist Amanda Nugent is delighted with Kate's progress, and said the speech team were thrilled to hear their patient was well enough to go home.
"Kate's worked incredibly hard, she is such a trooper. It's a whole team that make it work," Amanda said.
"We pushed her as hard as we could but she's the main player ... Such a motivated patient. It's really satisfying and gratifying to see how far she's come."
In two more cruel twists of fate to Kate's journey, while she was "asleep" in ICU her beloved father passed away, and then Jeff's father became unwell and passed away after spending time in the same hospital as his daughter-in-law.
"It's been a rough few months," Kate said.
Although they have been on an inconceivable journey, Kate and Jeff have been heartened by the love and support of family and friends. Jeff is very grateful to the many people who sent donations and gifts. "A big thank-you from our family," he said.
After Lexi's birth, the Mater Hospital kept her in the nursery for six weeks so Jeff could focus on supporting his wife and toddler Skylar at home.
"It was like having second mothers there with her, that was brilliant," Kate said.
The couple can't thank their employer the Mater Hospital enough for the support they've received in this tough time.
"I would really love to say a big thank-you to the Mater for everything they have done for us as a family, they've helped us more than I can ever say," Jeff said.
Jeff also thanks Dr Gerrit Burger, Physician, and Dr David Shaker, Obstetrician, at the Mater Hospital, who got Kate the prompt care that was essential to save her life.
When Kate was intubated, Skylar also got sick and Jeff spent his time between his daughters and his wife's bedside.
"I couldn't believe it," Jeff said. "I asked the doctor what sort of monster's doing this?
"Here's a healthy young lady who hasn't drunk or smoked and is very fit, how could she be flattened here like that? I just couldn't believe it.
"I worked in a hospital and they have never seen anything like it. We're still trying to come to terms with it."
Kate had never had a flu vaccine, even though she could get it free at work. "I always thought I don't get sick I'm a nurse I'm exposed to everything. But when I did it, I did it properly."
"Next year I'll be front of the line."
As Kate can attest, pregnant women are at increased risk of serious complications from the flu, and are strongly encouraged to be vaccinated.
"It gives you a whole new perspective on life it really does. Every time I hear the helicopter land on the roof I think of the poor person in that helicopter and the long journey they are just starting on," Kate said.
For now she's over the moon to be heading home for a dream new start with her babies and husband.