Knowing the Signs of Sepsis Can Save Lives
Every year, at least 1.7 million adults in America develop an extreme response to infection, a condition called sepsis that kills nearly 270,000 as a result. Despite this, many are unaware of the warning signs – which can save lives, if addressed quickly.
My friend’s son was one of those people who may have been able to be saved. Josh was a successful, healthy 27-year-old man who decided to return to school to become a child psychologist. He loved working with children, and the feeling was mutual. Just before beginning this journey, Josh experienced an equipment malfunction while skydiving that sent him plummeting to the ground at 60 miles per hour. Incredibly, he survived, but the fall resulted in a fractured femur and a fracture to the back of his skull.
Surgery reduced the pressure in his brain from the trauma and repaired his leg fracture. The recovery required a very difficult six-week stay in the intensive care unit, but Josh was on a good path to recovery. There was reason to be hopeful as he transitioned into a rehabilitation facility to continue his recovery, but when he went into cardio-pulmonary arrest after spiking a fever, and his brain again swelled, a medical error caused permanent injury to his cervical spine.
Paralyzed and ventilator-dependent, Josh endured agonizing pain over the next five days as his organs slowly yet steadily shut down. No one knew what or why it happened until an investigation discovered “sepsis” written on the very last statement of Josh’s medical record.
For every hour that passes, the risk of patient mortality increases. Research shows that 80% of sepsis deaths can be prevented with rapid diagnosis and treatment.
After undergoing a kidney transplant at a young age, Elizabeth and her family found out she was undergoing septic shock on Thanksgiving in 2018. The family was alerted after Elizabeth began feeling lethargic, confused and disoriented and ran a fever. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s body responded well to the antibiotics she received and, almost a year later, she is feeling better and is anxious to begin her studies in college.
Knowing the signs of sepsis is especially important for those with cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that undergoing certain treatments, like chemotherapy, puts you at higher risk of developing an infection, and infections can lead to sepsis. Tom and his wife, Mary, know the story of sepsis all too well. While undergoing end-stage cancer treatment, Tom ran a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit and rushed to the emergency room after a call to his primary care doctor. When they arrived and checked in, a Code Sepsis, which is called when a patient exhibits signs of infection along with at least one sign of sepsis, was called.
Once Tom was in the exam room, everything happened quickly: IVs started, blood tests done and antibiotics administered. Tom remained in the hospital for six days being treated for sepsis. Upon his release, he received oral antibiotics for two more weeks. Mary knew the importance of watching for signs of infection, and due to her quick response to Tom’s change in condition, he was able to get treatment quickly.
Causes, Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis
A patient with sepsis might have one or more of the following signs or symptoms:
- High heart rate.
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Extreme pain or discomfort.
- Fever, shivering or feeling very cold.
- Shortness of breath.
- Clammy or sweaty skin.
The CDC recently launched a website to increase sepsis awareness, and improve early recognition, diagnosis and treatment. The Surviving Sepsis Campaign includes evidence-based guidelines, performance improvement initiatives and analysis and publication of patient data.
For the last decade, sepsis has been part of the Vizient Performance Improvement Collaboratives program, where network members bring together clinical, operational and quality leaders to work on the most critical aspects of health care performance. Through collaboration and the sharing of leading practices, care providers are able to more quickly improve quality of care, lower costs and increase efficiency. More and more hospitals are taking this issue seriously. In 2017, 72 network organizations joined an Early Recognition and Intervention for Sepsis Management collaborative, reducing their total sepsis mortality rate by 4%, which translates to 283 lives saved during the nine-month project.
Efforts such as these are important in ensuring we hear more success stories like those of Elizabeth and Tom.