Surviving Sepsis: Two Local Women Share Their Stories

February 23, 2018

Lucky To Be Alive

In mid-August, Jennifer’s husband drove her to the Emergency Department (ED) of MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital where she was diagnosed with sepsis, a deadly infection that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and all too often, death.

“There was a point when I was in the Emergency Department and I remember feeling like I was not going to make it out of there. I have never felt so sick in all of my life,” said Jennifer, 49, who survived a battle with breast cancer 13 years ago.

A few days before she was admitted to the hospital, she noticed an infected, ingrown hair on her leg. She treated it and thought nothing more of it, but that small infection would lead to much bigger problems. Still recovering from a flu-like illness the previous week, she started to feel sicker over the weekend and stayed home from work Monday.

“I could not get out of bed,” Jennifer, a California, Md., resident said. “I stayed in bed all day Monday, and that’s not like me.” Tuesday, Jennifer went to work, but her symptoms worsened and she began having chills and uncontrollable shaking. Her coworkers called her husband who drove her to the hospital.

“The ED was full, but by the time my husband got back from parking the car, I was in a room and they were hooking up IVs,” Jennifer said.

When Jennifer arrived in the ED and was being triaged, the nurse recognized her symptoms and a Code Sepsis was called. In September 2016, MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital instituted the Code Sepsis, a treatment protocol designed to quickly diagnosis sepsis patients so that life-saving medications can be started. Antibiotics are effective in battling sepsis, but because the infection spreads rapidly delayed treatment increases the risk of death. 

“My doctor said it would take a lot of time for my body to recover,” she said. “And he told my husband, if I had stayed home by myself, my husband probably would have come home to find me in a coma or dead.”

Although it has taken several months for Jennifer to regain her strength, she has made a full recovery. For Cheryl Douglas, of Chevy Chase, the outcome was very different.

Education Can Save Lives

In 2006, Cheryl, who had recently retired, returned home one afternoon and suddenly started feeling ill like she had the flu. She sat in an ED for hours waiting to be seen. Two months later, she woke up from a coma with no recollection of what had happened.

While she was unconscious, her husband, Paul, and her doctors had to make the painful decision to amputate her hands and feet to save her life. It has taken years of physical therapy and relearning basic life skills such as walking and cooking, but Cheryl has regained her independence. She loves to cook and travel with her husband and is determined to help others survive sepsis. 

 “Two hundred and fifty thousand people die each year in this country due to this totally treatable health condition,” said Paul, who with Cheryl recently shared their story at the Southern Maryland Sepsis Collaborative hosted by MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital.

“Paul and I had never heard of sepsis and we had no idea what to do,” said Cheryl. “If people know the symptoms, they are more likely to go to the doctor.”

Cheryl and Paul believe that education of healthcare workers and the public is the key to reducing sepsis deaths. “We could save so many lives in such a relatively easy way,” said Paul.

Visit MedStarStMarys.org/Sepsis to learn more. 

Know The Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis

S ► Shivering, fever, or very cold

E ► Extreme pain or discomfort

P ► Pale, discolored, clammy or sweaty skin

S ► Sleepy, confusion or disorientation

I ►" I feel like I might die."

S ► Shortness of breath

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