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Paso Robles man fights for his life against swine flu

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Michael Burgos’ last memory before spending 33 days in the intensive care unit at Twin Cities Community Hospital is of playing golf with friends.0

That was before he was infected with swine flu.

The ensuing battle to survive is something he bears physically. After losing 24 pounds in almost as many days, Burgos is now frail. He walks gingerly because his coordination is haphazard, the effect of complications brought on by the illness that almost killed him. Even his 124 pounds seems a lot to carry.

“I keep thinking this is not real,” he said. “This can’t be happening to me — it must be just a dream because I woke up like this.”

Burgos, once an opponent of vaccines for the flu, now champions getting them.

The life-threatening experience Burgos has endured remains largely obscure to him. The 51-year-old Paso Robles man remembers little about the last few months. His longtime companion, Patricia Alexander, shares pieces of the ordeal with Burgos as he is ready, and has chronicled the experiences on her blog. Burgos plans to read it one day, but for now he remains focused on re-establishing his health.

Healing will take time. In addition to learning to walk again, he must also learn to read and write once more. A stroke caused by the flu affected the motor skills on the left side of his body and weakened his eyesight.

“It is really shocking not to be able to write your own name,” Burgos said. “I was a gym rat, and now I can barely walk. It is freaky.”

Childhood cancer

This isn’t the first time that Burgos had to fight serious illness to survive.

When he was only 2 years old, he lost a kidney to cancer and went through radiation treatments. The cancer came back in the form of lymphoma when he was 28, and he underwent seven months of chemotherapy.

Since then, Burgos has lived a regimented lifestyle: routinely going to the gym, eating well and sleeping often. He rarely got ill, and never contracted the flu or the common cold.

“I was in perfect health,” said Burgos. “I thought I wouldn’t get it. I learned a big lesson.”

Now he is drawing on inner strength to survive again.

“I have to bear down and focus inside,” Burgos said. “It takes a lot of energy on my part to stay optimistic and look beyond the stresses of right now.”

Numerous complications

Alexander spent countless nights sleeping on a cot next to Burgos in the intensive care unit. The story she tells differs vastly from what Burgos is able to share — it includes painstaking details of every medical procedure and scare along the way. And there were many.

Burgos suffered complications from the swine flu including pneumonia, kidney problems, a medically induced coma and a small stroke.

He was intubated twice to help him breathe and fed for nearly a month by a feeding tube in his stomach.

“I couldn’t help but feel that the lifesaving things were just becoming the next torture,” Alexander said. A happy ending didn’t seem feasible, she said. “At one point I was ready to let him go because he was suffering so much.”

Burgos, who spent several weeks rehabilitating at a hospital in Santa Barbara, was allowed to go home four days ago. There is still a long road to complete recovery with at least a year of additional therapy needed.

Now taking the vaccine

Burgos said he was reluctant to get the H1N1 vaccine because he was so healthy and couldn’t conceive of purposely putting a virus into his body.

“I read about the virus in the paper, but I really thought there was no way that I could be vulnerable to it,” Burgos said.

He now advocates for the inoculation and urges everyone he knows to get it. He’s even signed up for the flu vaccine — something he has avoided the majority of his adult life.

“The problem with illness is not the toll it takes on a sick person,” he said. “It was harder on Patricia than me, and it was difficult on my family, who had to all watch a loved one get so ill.”

The illness has brought him and Patricia closer, he said. The two plan to get married later this year.

“Patricia has been here every step of the way, even when I was not aware of it,” Burgos said. “Family members tell me how much she was there, and it makes me love her all the more.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.

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