In 1996, Pittsburgh native Sonja started a life in Cambodia — first as a missionary and then as a full-time teacher.
Nearly two decades later, the married mother of three traveled to her native Pittsburgh to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, when she grew dangerously ill.
Stress from work and grueling hours of travel weakened Sonja’s immune system. She was first diagnosed with pneumonia and on New Year’s Day, as her oxygen levels lowered, she was flown to UPMC Presbyterian and diagnosed with H1N1, the swine flu.
H1N1 causes severe respiratory distress and can be fatal if not quickly treated. The illness left her bedridden for two months. She was admitted to the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Montefiore to regain her strength.
During her time at the Rehab Institute, she regained the ability to stand and walk.
“The doctors told me they were going to push me hard for three hours a day so I’d get stronger,” Sonja recalled. “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.”