It’s one of the leading causes of death in the nation, killing more than 200,000 Americans each year, yet a survey conducted this summer shows most in the U.S. say they have never heard of the term “sepsis“.
That’s something the Global Sepsis Alliance, a worldwide group of public health organizations, hopes to change. September 13th it marked the first annual “World Sepsis Day”.
A Northern Illinois woman says she continues to suffer four years after sepsis nearly killed her. As Peter Gray reports from the WUIS Health Desk, many hospitals in Illinois are working to improve their response so their patients won’t have a similar outcome.
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When 30-year-old Heidi Ottilie of DeKalb brought her daughter Olivia into the world in April of 2008, she was healthy, and had never been to a hospital before. There was no way of knowing her first cesarean delivery would also be her last…
OTTILIE: “It squashed my dream of having more than one child. I can’t have anymore biological children because my stomach wall isn’t strong enough.”
When she woke from a coma in May, doctors said a small cut in her bowel triggering a massive infection in her abdomen, which within days caused sepsis and septic shock, something neither she nor her family had heard of before. When told its early symptoms include high fever, things began to add up. She was running a fever for a week after giving birth and knew something just wasn’t right – a feeling that haunts her today.
OTTILIE: “When I run a fever, I get really nervous, and when I hear someone’s ill, I get really worried. I don’t want to take medicine to be happy, but because of this experience, I don’t have a choice.”
Heidi is plagued with anxiety and depression on top of chronic abdominal pain and digestive problems. She can’t lift her now four-year-old daughter and doesn’t know how to tell her she won’t ever have brothers or sisters to play with. She’s a survivor, but her body may never fully recover from the trauma of septic shock – an outcome Decatur Physician Stephen Arnold hopes to prevent in his patients.
ARNOLD: “This is a devastating illness and the people that survived before we started doing this were debilitated than the people that survive now. What we do in the first 6 hours can avoid a lot of that.”
Dr. Arnold says with sepsis syndrome, as with heart attack or stroke, ‘time is tissue’. Decatur Memorial Hospital now treats this medical emergency as rapidly as possible. It’s what’s known as a sepsis “protocol”. Clinical Quality Consultant Kathy McDowell says the numbers show it’s working for some Decatur patients.
MCDOWELL: “When we first started and we looked at our baseline data at Decatur Memorial, we were at 48 percent mortality, and with the initiation of our sepsis protocol we were able to cut that mortality nearly in half the first year.”
Sometimes referred to colloquially as “blood poisoning”, infectious disease specialist Dr. Vidya Sundareshan more accurately defines sepsis as the body’s systemic inflammatory response to infection that has reached the bloodstream. She says it has a wide spectrum of effects on the body, with fever and rapid heartbeat on one end, and on the other:
SUNDARESHAN: “There can be shut-down of various organ systems; the kidney can shut down, the liver can shut down, and then the end of the spectrum is septic shock.”
Sundareshan teaches at Springfield’s SIU School of Medicine. She tells students that an infection from any type of organism has the potential to trigger sepsis. Patients with weaker immune systems – recently-born infants and patients 65 and up – are at an increased risk. Basic hygiene, she says, is key to infection prevention, both at home and at the hospital.
SUNDARESHAN: “For patients that are coming in for surgery, it’s not wrong to ask if somebody’s washed their hands. Hand-washing and hand hygiene, I would like to stress, is one of the biggest things that can control infections.”
Back at Decatur Memorial, Intensive Care Director of Nursing Jason Grauer runs his hands under a no-touch faucet.
GRAUER: “It’s the infections that start it, but it’s your own body trying to fight the infection that leads to severe sepsis. It’s your own body trying to win.”
Patient rooms doors with “wash in, wash out” signs, alcohol foam dispensers at every entrance: This ICU is clearly pushing a culture of infection prevention. MRSA, a drug-resistant, “super bug” staph bacteria can trigger sepsis and patient infection rates remain high, around 20 percent. Doctors and nurses are being pushed hard to make sure catheters, breathing tubes and intravenous lines are sanitary and the environment clean.
Heidi Ottilie of DeKalb, who four years ago beat the odds and survived septic shock, does what she can to make sure people know about the risks of hospitalization, using her experience as a tool for med students at hospitals in Chicago:
OTTILIE: “students come in sometimes when I have check-ups and I tell them my stories, so I’m glad that I can make people aware of sepsis.”
And what does she tell her friends and family members when she hears they may be headed to a hospital?
OTTILIE: “I tell them to trust their body. Doctors are great, but if you don’t feel something’s right, then you need to speak up. Or if you can’t speak up… you need to have an advocate for you, and don’t be scared to switch hospitals.”
Reporting from the WUIS Health Desk, I’m Peter Gray.
— Support for WUIS’ Health Desk comes from Springfield Clinic.