On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control declared sepsis to be a “medical emergency.” Also called septic shock, it occurs when the body creates an overwhelming response to an infection, and chemicals released into the bloodstream (because that’s where the infecting bug is) cause inflammation, tissue damage, organ failure, and oftentimes, death.
The CDC is drawing attention to this issue because 1 – 3 million Americans are diagnosed with sepsis each year, about 25% of whom die, and because — and this is the key — 80% of the cases occur outside of a hospital. And for that very reason people are dying needlessly because the symptoms of sepsis are usually misinterpreted as something familiar and benign: at bedtime we may be thinking the flu but by morning we have runaway sepsis — and no time to lose.
Taylor Church’s story illustrates the problem. Taylor was then a healthy twenty-one year old, the mother of an 18 month old boy, Aiden, and excited about starting nursing school the following week. She had been feeling a bit run down — it was probably just the flu — so she had stayed home for a few days. Suddenly, though, things went downhill. She went to the hospital and then, surprisingly, was whisked into surgery. She had no idea what she was facing. The following video is Taylor, soon after her surgery, telling you what happened (please watch):
When Taylor went into surgery she didn’t know she was facing amputation: “I didn’t know that they were taking my hands and feet. I woke up like this.”
Like most sepsis patients, Taylor was at home when it began and chalked it up to the flu. And by the time she sought medical care it was too late.
Taylor’s story is also unique. Anyone can contract sepsis but almost ¾ of sepsis patients are vulnerable to begin with. For example, they are over 65, and are living with some chronic conditions like diabetes and, especially, pneumonia, which is reported in 35% of sepsis cases.
The CDC tells us that the bugs usually associated with the initial infection are Staphylococcus, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and some types of Streptococcus. Interestingly, in 1/3 of patients no pathogen is ever identified. This suggests that the burden of disease cause caused by these pathogens is much greater than is being reported.
The CDC issued the medical emergency so we will “think sepsis” when we see one of the following six key signs of it:
Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold
Extreme pain or discomfort
Clammy or sweaty skin
Confusion or disorientation
Shortness of breath
A high heart rate
These are the warning signs, say the CDC, that you’re in the midst of a medical emergency, and therefore need to “act fast.”
Four years ago when these signs were little known, Taylor Church, understandably, thought she had the flu. And so now, post-amputation, Taylor says, “I’ll make the best of this. I will make the best of this.”
Taylor Church puts her story out there for one reason: she hopes that someday you won’t find yourself having to find the strength and courage to utter those very same words.