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Sonja: H1N1 Flu

The Challenge: A Suppressed Immune System

In 1996, Sonja — a Pittsburgh native — moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to serve as a missionary. Her goal was to start a school for underprivileged kids.

Twenty years later, she's 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 doctors diagnosed her with pneumonia.

The Path to UPMC on a Life-Flight

On New Year’s Day, her oxygen levels took a turn for the worse. Sonja found herself on a life-flight to UPMC Presbyterian where doctors diagnosed her with H1N1 — the swine flu.

H1N1 causes severe respiratory problems and is often fatal if not caught early.

Sonja's care team put her on ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation).

ECMO is a machine that provides life support for people with acute failure of the heart and lungs.

Sonja was extremely weak after being bedridden for two months. She transferred 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.”

Sonja says that the therapists at UPMC Rehabilitation Institute are so passionate about what they do.

The Solution: Therapy to Stand and Walk Again

Sonja worked hard to stand and walk again.

During the next three weeks, she:

  • Used a walker at first.
  • Practiced her balance on a rubber mat.
  • Caught balls and balloons to make her stretch and reach without falling over.

Sonja says:

“My physical and occupational therapists — Yulia and Natalie — made it a joy work out each day, even though I was so tired. 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.”

The Results: Plans to Return to Cambodia Soon

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.”

Learn more about inpatient rehab

To find out more about our services, contact the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

Or, visit the UPMC HealthBeat blog to read:

This patient's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.


Read more Rehab Institute Patient Stories.