LAND O'LAKES — Cherie Starling admits she used to joke about swine flu.
But not anymore, says the 48-year-old mother of two from Carrollwood. Not after a severe bout with the virus in which she has spent more than a month — mostly unconscious — at three hospitals in Louisiana and Florida.
"It's not a joke. People should take swine flu very seriously," Starling said Wednesday from her bed at University Community Health's Long Term Acute Care Hospital at Connerton, in south Pasco County.
Though Starling is now recovering well and could be discharged as early as this weekend, her husband said things got so bad early in his wife's illness that a doctor in Louisiana told him he should probably get his affairs in order because they didn't know what was going to happen to his wife.
Wayne Starling, 43, said he told the couple's children what was going on, and even began researching wills for his wife, who didn't have one. But he didn't want to start contacting funeral homes.
"I didn't want to go that far. I didn't want to believe that she was going to die," he said.
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Starling was accompanying her 16-year-old daughter, Savannah, on a multicity tour with the Jacksonville-based Teal Sound Drum & Bugle Corps. Starling said she started to feel ill during a stay in Mobile, Ala., and things got worse two days later at the group's next stop in Lafayette, La.
On July 20, Starling said she was having trouble breathing, and she was admitted to a hospital in nearby Opelousas, La., where doctors diagnosed her with the H1N1 flu virus and pneumonia and treated her with Tamiflu and antibiotics.
An official with the traveling group contacted Wayne Starling, who flew to Opelousas the next day. When he got there, he learned that his wife had become unconscious due to a drop in her blood-oxygen level. Doctors put her on a ventilator.
Starling remained in Opelousas with her husband by her side until Wayne Starling, who owns a painting and waterproofing business, was able to arrange a medical transport to Tampa on Aug. 6. She spent her first week at St. Joseph's before being transferred on Aug. 14 to University Community Health's new Long Term Acute Care Hospital in Land O'Lakes, where her condition has improved steadily, said Dr. Kevin Sierra, who has been treating Starling since she arrived in Tampa.
Sierra said Starling had developed adult respiratory distress syndrome, which can be caused by many things, including swine flu. Starling, however, does not have any underlying conditions — such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease — which have been present in the majority of patients who have died from the virus.
Starling, who works as a payroll manager for a food service company in New Port Richey, regained consciousness several days into her stay at the Land O'Lakes hospital. She was able to start breathing on her own this week and had her first "real" meal Tuesday night, she said. Starling added that she's slowly regaining her strength, and has been going through physical therapy at the hospital.
"I'm looking forward to just getting home," she said.
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.