As 2017 came to a close, 33-year-old Joei Smith was feeling great.
A health-conscious fitness fanatic, he had got his flu shot in early November and passed his annual physical with flying colors in mid-December.
But shortly after lunch on December 29, while giving a presentation to his coworkers at Geiko in Dallas, Texas, he started to feel ‘a bit dizzy’. He stepped outside for a walk to ‘shake it off’ but eventually told his boss he thought he was going to faint.
Arriving home at 3pm, he was shaking so much it took him five minutes to climb the stairs. By 11pm, he had a fever, body aches, and heart palpitations.
He went to urgent care with a friend, where a flu test came up negative. With his blood pressure soaring, they sent him to the nearest hospital, where another flu test came up negative. And yet his organs were failing.
After three hours of blindly rushing to control his blood pressure and other symptoms despite no diagnosis, doctors told Smith’s friend to call his family; they didn’t think he would survive 24 hours.
Now, six weeks later, Smith is alive, and blood tests have since revealed what was sickening him: the flu, sepsis, pneumonia and a kidney infection.
However, the blood pressure drugs that saved his life cut off the circulation to his fingers, which have now been amputated, and his toes, which are set to be amputated in the near future.
Speaking to Daily Mail Online from his hospital bed after the first amputation, Smith said he was just happy to be alive, and wanted to urge everyone who will listen to do everything to protect themselves from this year’s deadly virus which has claimed hundreds of lives.
‘If I had waited just a couple of hours, I wouldn’t be here,’ Smith said. ‘I’m just so happy I’m alive. I’m in pain but I’ll get through this. I just want everyone to know what I went through, to get the flu shot and to protect themselves.’
Alabama-born Smith, a self-confessed ‘gym head’, had just started training other people in his gym – an exciting new milestone a year-and-a-half after moving from Mississippi to Dallas.
He is also very organized about his healthcare; he gets the flu shot every year on the week of his birthday, which is November 9 (‘that’s how I remember to get it’).
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Smith found out this year’s flu strain was set to be a particularly virulent one.
‘People started to talk about it and I thought, “well it’s a good thing I got my flu shot then”.
‘I really didn’t think my risk was high. I eat extremely well, I’m a gym nut, I train others in the gym. I had a doctors appointment two weeks before getting sick, and everything was good. My blood work was good, my physical was good. I had no reason to believe I would be so sick so soon.’
The day Smith got sick on Friday December 29 was the last day before he was due to go to New Orleans with a friend to celebrate New Year.
During lunch he was in the break room, and he heard a coworker coughing and sneezing. With Dallas one of the metro areas worst-affected by the flu in the country, it’s a popular topic of conversation. He joked ‘stop coughing or you’ll make us all sick!’
He then went to run a management development workshop, and that’s where he started to feel woozy.
‘It was only about 45 minutes back into work that I started to feel light-headed,’ he said.
He went on for about an hour, taking a break to clear his head, but in the end decided he had to get home.
‘I was shaking so much, I couldn’t move. It took me five minutes to climb up the stairs. I didn’t know what was happening,’ he said.
‘I decided to take a nap and when I woke up at about 6pm I felt much better. I went out to get some food, I ate, but then I started to feel really bad again.
‘I called my friend because we were meant to be going to New Orleans together the next day, and I told him “hey I don’t think I’ll be able to make it, I’ll call you later to let you know”. At about 11pm I called him and said “I’m just getting worse, I definitely can’t make it” and he said “do you need me to take you to urgent care?” By that point I was feeling terrible so we went.’
When Smith arrived, the first thing they did was a swab flu test, which came back negative. He was transferred to Texas-Presbyterian Hospital in Plano, Texas, where another test came up negative at around midnight. They did blood work but that wouldn’t show results until Monday January 1, 2018.
‘At that point, I still thought they were just going to treat me for the flu so I told my friend to call my parents in Birmingham, Alabama, and tell them I was in hospital, not to worry, all of that.’
Three hours later, his friend called his parents again, and told them they needed to make the eight-hour drive from Birmingham to Plano, because their youngest son was in intensive care and it didn’t look like he would make it a day longer.
What happened next was a blur, Smith said.
He was ‘out’ in a medically-induced coma the morning of Saturday December 30 to the afternoon of Thursday January 4.
During that time, the doctors took a wild gamble, putting him on ‘pressers’ to lower his blood pressure, as well as a ‘roller’ bed which rotated his body to keep his blood moving to all his limbs.
On the day he came to, he was on a ventilator, which nurses say he ripped out, though he doesn’t remember doing that. Then he was put on a more secure breathing mask. That was a game-changer. Within eight hours he was moved onto just a breathing tube, and by Sunday January 7 he had improved to the point that he was only relying on it two percent.
However, as his condition improved, doctors started to notice blisters mounting on his hands and feet, which were gradually turning black.
They tried to surgically remove the blisters and keep his blood circulation up, but by his second week in hospital, doctors broke the news to Smith and his family – his brother, sister and parents – that he would likely lose his fingers and toes, if not his entire hands and feet.
‘My doctor said he had never seen this occur. People react in different ways to pressers but this is extremely rare. This doesn’t normally happen,’ Smith said.
After a week in rehab and a second hospital stint, Smith was taken back to hospital on Wednesday February 7 to have his fingers amputated.
He has lost more on his right than his left (an added complication given that he is right-handed). On his left, he lost the digits on the top of all of his fingers, and a bit closer to the knuckle on the middle finger. On his right, all of his fingers have been amputated down to near the knuckle. Both his thumbs remain intact.
Doctors say he will soon lose his toes, which are blackened from lack of blood supply, but Smith fears it could be more severe as the wounds on other parts of his foot aren’t healing.
Despite the life-changing experience, Smith’s attitude is candid and optimistic.
‘It was a shock,’ he said on Thursday afternoon after seeing his amputated fingers for the first time during a bandage change.
‘I did not initially want to look at them but once the doctor came in she convinced me it was okay to look.’
Asked how he was feeling, he added: ‘I’m okay. One step closer to healing.’
In the lead up to the operation, he said he tried to focus his attention on ‘the future’.
‘I know I’ll be able to still lift weight because I can bend my hand. I need to work out when, or if, I can go back to work. My work involves a lot of writing and typing so that’s complicated. I tried writing with a pen but… it was pretty illegible.’
For now, he is doing all his communication using speech-to-text technology on his phone, navigating everything using his thumbs.
Smith, who is not setting up a fundraiser page (‘I’m hoping my insurance is going to come through for me on all of this!’), is investigating the possibility of getting prosthetic fingers, but fears they may be too expensive.
Smith’s case follows that of another Texas man revealed he was undergoing multiple amputations due to the flu.
Married father-of-two Brian Herndon, 51, was instantly left with severe complications after he was admitted to the hospital for debilitating illnesses on January 4.
Herndon’s GoFundMe page, set up by loved ones January 26, said the Fort Worth dad also suffered pneumonia and went into septic shock before long.
‘Brian has been facing all kinds of complications… As of today Brian will need prosthetics for both feet and special hand work as parts of every finger have been amputated,’ the devastating post read.
Texas is one of the worst-affected states by this year’s flu outbreak, particularly Dallas and Fort Worth, which are in the top 10 metro areas for flu death rates.
The virus has been particularly aggressive this year. The flu shot has been about 30 percent effective at thwarting it.