Two faded scars on either side of Ryley Henry’s neck are grim souvenirs of a battle with the flu he very nearly didn’t win.
Stephanie McNab (front) and Ryley Henry (back) with their girls Ashlyn (L-R) and Leita.
“That’s where the tubes were,” said the Saskatoon resident when speaking of his 2016 illness. “It’s a reminder of what I went through. The flu left its mark on me.”
It started as a cough that wouldn’t go away. As for when his ordeal ended? Two years later, he’s still recovering.
“Usually, (when I’m sick) I’m better in two or three days,” he said. “This time around, I was getting worse. I could barely crawl up two flights of stairs. I was getting erratic. I sounded like I was panting.”
As each day passed, his wife, Stephanie McNab, became increasingly worried.
On Day 6, she called for an ambulance.
“He was blue in the lips, his colour was white and he couldn’t walk two steps without getting out of breath,” she said.
Doctors induce coma
Paramedics rushed him to Royal University Hospital where he was immediately taken to an isolation room in the emergency department, then transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU).
“They realized there was something wrong right away,” said Henry.
He recalls a physician telling him he was putting a tube down his throat and that he would be given something to make him sleepy. “That’s all I remember till I came out of it,” said Henry, who spent the next two weeks in a medically induced coma while a health care team worked diligently to keep him alive.
While Henry remembers almost nothing after this point, the details of that day are as clear as if they happened yesterday to McNab.
There was a whirlwind of events: the paramedics, the supper clean-up, the trip to the hospital, her husband seemingly responding to care, her nephew and son’s hockey games . . . and the phone call.
“At quarter to 11, the doctors called. They needed my consent over the phone to perform an emergency procedure as he wasn’t getting any better. They told me I’d better get back to the hospital.”
When she returned, she found her husband attached to an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine by two tubes, one in his neck and one in his leg. The ECMO pumps and oxygenates blood outside the body, allowing the lungs to rest.
A doctor signalled he wanted to talk to her but before he got the chance, a social worker took her into a private room and said something too unbelievable to be true. “‘They don’t think he’s going to make it.’”
Shortly after, the doctor in charge joined them and said, “‘He’s basically the sickest man in all of Canada.’
“They said they didn’t know what to do but they would do everything that it takes to make him better.”
And then, time stood still.
McNab, who was five months pregnant with three kids at home, said her mind pretty much went blank.
“I was stunned. I instantly felt cold. I was shaking and in shock.
“I didn’t want to lose my husband.”
The following day, Henry’s situation didn’t look any better. Doctors needed to insert another cannula – a tube needed to help oxygenate his blood – this time in his other leg. They weren’t sure he’d survive the procedure.
The family, which included McNab, her and Henry’s five children, Henry’s brother and mother from Regina, McNab’s parents who’d driven from Winnipeg and a number of other relatives and special friends, were told to say their goodbyes.
“‘I didn’t want to be a widow.’ ‘I didn’t want our kids to grow up without a dad.’ Those were the thoughts in my head. I let those thoughts come through once and that was it. After that, I believed he was going to make it.”
Henry’s heart was strong and he pulled though. Although the next two weeks were filled with ups and downs, little by little, Henry made progress.
Slowly, most of the machines keeping Henry alive were removed and, by Day 13, doctors began to bring him out of the coma.
Although Henry doesn’t remember being unconscious, he clearly remembers returning from another place.
“Let’s just say I saw the other side. The people I saw were surreal. The day I came back, my grandmother and I were walking in a field and she said, ‘It’s time to go home now.’ She pushed me twice. She sent me home.”
Henry – now 50 pounds lighter – spent eight more days on oxygen and two more weeks in the hospital before he was discharged home.
Long road back
Recovery has been tough.
“I had to relearn to walk, go to physiotherapy.
“When I came home, my wife had to do the basic functions for me. I couldn’t go to the bathroom, put my socks on. I felt like a burden. To this day, I’ve got numbness on my right side of my leg. Every time I go for a walk, I can go for 10 or 15 minutes, and then the numbness comes.”
A year and a half passed before Henry was able to return to work. During that time, money was tight and McNab believes her baby’s delivery was difficult because of stress.
Despite the hardships, there were blessings. Her family pulled together and helped them pay the bills and their baby girl was born happy and healthy. Her name is Leita, in honour of Henry’s grandmother.
Henry’s not sure why he survived. He said doctors gave him a less than five per cent chance of pulling through. “The doctor said it was a miracle. They can’t tell me why I’m still here. It’s a question that won’t be answered.”
Although neither McNab nor Henry would presume to tell people what to do, given their near-death experience with the flu, they and their children will get the flu shot this year, and every year.
“I would not wish what happened to us on anybody,” said McNab. “That was the scariest moment of my life.”
Added Henry, “I used to be all tough and say, ‘I don’t need the shot.’ I was on my deathbed because I didn’t want to make that choice. I’d hate to see someone close to me go through what I went through because they didn’t get the shot.”