With the recent deaths of Patty Duke and Muhammad Ali, the lesser known but life-threatening disease is making headlines.
Katie Danielson of Olathe was seven months pregnant when she almost died.
What started as a cold and fever turned into pneumonia, which led to an inability to breathe, causing her to pass out and require a ventilator. The culprit? Severe sepsis.
Sepsis, the body’s exaggerated response to an infection that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death, has been in the news recently. It’s what killed actress Patty Duke, 69, who went into septic shock after suffering a ruptured intestine. Her death spurred a national conversation about the disease.
Sepsis is insidious. It can rear its ugly head anytime in any part of the body of anyone at any age, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, signs of sepsis can be broken down as an acronym for the word SEPSIS: Shivering, Extreme pain, Pale or discolored skin, Sleepiness, “I feel like I might die” and Shortness of breath.
Danielson, 30, is one of the lucky ones because she survived with no devastating after effects. Sepsis leaves thousands of survivors with life-changing consequences, and more than 258,000 Americans die each year from it, making sepsis the ninth leading cause of disease-related death in the United States.
“I definitely could have been one of those statistics,” Danielson says.
In late November 2014, Danielson’s low-grade fever, cough and trouble breathing spurred her to call her obstetrician, who thought she might have pneumonia. They met in the emergency room at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. After taking chest X-rays, blood work, and putting her on an antibiotic IV and oxygen to help her breathe, the decision was made to admit her overnight for observation.
That decision undoubtedly saved her life because hours later in her hospital room, after she sent her husband home for the night, Danielson decided to use the restroom. When she stood up, suddenly she couldn’t breathe. She called for a nurse and immediately was whisked on a gurney to the Intensive Care Unit.
“I completely stopped breathing,” Danielson recalls. “I just blacked out.”
At the ICU, she was intubated, and it was discovered that she had a rare streptococcal pneumonia and was severely septic.
“I was so sick they had a labor and delivery nurse plus an ICU nurse at my bed for four days,” Danielson says.
After four days she was taken off the ventilator while still in the ICU. After a day or two, she moved to the Progressive Care Unit for four or five days. She was weaned off oxygen, switched to oral antibiotics, received breathing treatments and worked on gaining strength. She was allowed to go home but was monitored carefully because she also became a gestational diabetic.
In February 2015, she delivered a healthy boy, Luke, by cesarean section. She eventually required a procedure to reduce the swollen tissue around her trachea caused by the intubation.
From her experience, Danielson, director of nursing at Olathe Medical Center, urges people to be their own health advocate.
“Always speak up about sepsis,” she warns.
But, according to polls conducted in 2015 overseen by the Sepsis Alliance, only 47 percent of Americans are aware of sepsis. Meanwhile, 86 percent know about Ebola and 76 know about malaria, two diseases much rarer in the United States.
Yet health officials stress that the more people are aware of the condition, the more likely they can save their lives or those of their loved ones.
Dr. Len Lozada, Saint Luke’s Health System chief physician executive, explains that every infection — whether bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic — can cause sepsis that can eventually lead to full-blown septic shock, which can be fatal. It can stem from something as innocuous as a playground scrape or scratch, or a wound or burn that was not properly cleaned.
“This very initial event can cause something that devastating,” Lozada says. “It can be anything. It can be a sinus infection. We’ve seen everything from scalp lesions, somebody bumps their head and that gets infected, to patients who are immunosuppressed because they have cancer or because they’re transplant patients and they don’t manifest symptoms until it’s a full-ride picture of sepsis that occurs.”
“It does hit more frequently young people and individuals over the age of 65, but it can hit anybody,” he continues. “We’ve seen it. We’ve seen young people get scratches playing basketball, fall down, scrape their elbow. Next thing you know, they’re in a SIRS [systematic inflammatory response syndrome] or a sepsis, and their arms get so swollen that there’s nothing left to do but to amputate the arm in order to save the patient.”
Although people often think sepsis is a hospital-acquired infection, health officials say about two-thirds of cases are first documented by the emergency department, which means they were acquired outside a hospital setting.
According to the CDC, people with sepsis are usually treated in the hospital by tackling the initial infection, keeping the vital organs working and preventing a drop in blood pressure. Doctors treat sepsis with antibiotics as soon as possible because the first hours are crucial to survival. Many patients receive oxygen and intravenous fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure. Other types of treatment, such as assisting breathing with a machine or kidney dialysis, may be necessary. Sometimes surgery is required to remove tissue damaged by the infection.
Danielson, who has always been healthy except for her episode with sepsis, says she feels blessed that her medical team came through with knowing what to do for treating her. Many hospitals in the area, she adds, have developed protocols for treating sepsis.
“If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone,” she says.
Sepsis Facts from the CDC
- Any type of infection that is anywhere in your body can cause sepsis, including infections of the skin, lungs (such as pneumonia), urinary tract, abdomen (such as appendicitis) or other part of the body. An infection occurs when germs enter a person’s body and multiply, causing illness and organ and tissue damage.
- People at higher risk of sepsis are those with weakened immune systems; babies and very young children and the elderly; people with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease; and people suffering from a severe wound or burn.
- To prevent sepsis, get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia and any other infections that could lead to sepsis. Clean scrapes and wounds, practice good hygiene by hand washing and bathing regularly. If you have an infection, look for signs like fever, chills, rapid breathing and heart rate, rash, confusion and disorientation.
- If you suspect you have sepsis, tell your health care provider, “I am concerned about sepsis.” CDC officials say if you get sepsis, you have a higher chance of dying than if you have a heart attack, stroke or trauma.