In 1996, Sonja, a Pittsburgh native, moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to serve as a missionary with a goal to establish a school for underprivileged kids. Twenty years later, she is now a full-time teacher there. She’s also married, and has three teenage boys.
In December 2015, Sonja was flying home to visit her parents for Christmas. Stress at work and the long trip home suppressed her immune system. She became very ill and her family had to take her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with pneumonia.
On New Year’s Day, her oxygen levels took a turn for the worse. Sonja was life-flighted to UPMC Presbyterian where she was diagnosed with H1N1, the swine flu.
H1N1 causes severe respiratory problems and is often fatal if it’s not caught early. Sonja was put on ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation), a heart-lung machine that provides life support for patients with acute failure of the cardio-respiratory system.
Sonja was incredibly weak after being bedridden for two months and was admitted to the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Montefiore to regain her strength.
“The doctors told me they were going to push me hard for three hours a day so I’d get stronger,” recalls Sonja. “I told them I’d been through enough and I didn’t want ‘hard.’ I wanted easy! But they told me that they were able to help stroke patients. So I figured, if stroke patients can do this rehab, then so can I.”
During the next three weeks, Sonja worked hard to stand and walk again. She used a walker at first, practiced her balance on a rubber mat, and caught balls and balloons to make her stretch and reach without falling over.
“My physical therapist, Yulia, and my occupational therapist, Natalie, made it a joy to go work out each day, even though I was so tired,” says Sonja. “They’d say, ‘You took one step. Do you think you can take one more for me?’ And that’s all they’d expect. Building trust with them was so important and I really appreciated their honesty.”
Sonja slowly regained her strength and was able to return to her parents’ home. She will continue to recover there and plans to return to Cambodia in one year.
“It’s been a long road but the exercises I learned at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute will continue to serve me well,” says Sonja. “The therapists there really cheer on the patients and showed love for all of us. They are so passionate about what they do.”