I Didn’t Know What Sepsis Was Until It Almost Killed Me

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Flu season has been brutal this year and it isn’t over yet. For people who are susceptible to complications from the flu, like me because I have asthma, the illness and its resulting complications can be life-threatening. But even healthy people can be susceptible to complications like pneumonia and sepsis, as we’ve learned from the heartbreaking stories about recent flu-related deaths.

Both of my children and my husband (who is a middle school teacher) got the flu in February. Thankfully, their flu symptoms were much more mild than they might have been because we all got a flu shot in December. I feel like I won a prize because I didn’t get the flu at all (knock on wood). Part of that is diligence—getting the flu shot, washing my hands frequently, keeping my asthma well-managed—but some of it is sheer luck.

I don’t take my health for granted because in 2015 I nearly died of the same complications we’ve been hearing about.

At the time, I’d never even heard of sepsis, which is the body’s extreme, life-threatening response to infection. For me, the progression started with norovirus rather than flu. It progressed to pneumonia, sepsis and then septic shock, which causes dangerously low blood pressure that results in internal organs malfunctioning because they’re not receiving enough blood. And all of this happened within the span of a few days.

It was late March in 2015 and I’d been feeling “off” for a couple of days. You know the feeling—tired, achy, like I was coming down with something.

But moms aren’t allowed to get sick, and neither are freelance writers on deadline. So after a weekend of trying to take it easy, I took some ibuprofen on Monday morning, cranked up my caffeine intake and forged on. By Monday afternoon I felt lousy enough to go to bed before dinner. I’m a firm believer in the restorative powers of sleep. Most of the time, it’s all I need to get back to feeling like myself.

On Tuesday morning, I felt even worse. I had chills, fever and was vomiting. I was wheezing more than usual, too, which I thought was my asthma acting up. But it was, as it turns out, actually pneumonia. My husband stayed home to take care of our three-year-old and take our five-year-old to school. I was still convinced I could sleep it off.

“I’ll feel better tomorrow,” I told my husband.

By Wednesday, I had diarrhea and my urine was dark. I was barely able to make it to the bathroom on my own. I hadn’t eaten since early Monday and all I wanted to do was sleep. My husband wanted to take me to the hospital. I told him I just needed to rest. I was so sick at that point I was experiencing “brain fog”—confusion, inability to reason, and even hallucinations. To put it simply, I was not in my my right mind. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was dying of septic shock. My major concern was that it was the week of my husband’s birthday and Easter and I had so much to do to get ready.

Thursday morning, my husband said he was taking me to the hospital.

I hate sitting in hospital waiting rooms, so I asked him to call my doctor instead. He came back a few minutes later and said she could see me within the hour. With my husband’s help, it still took twenty minutes for me to get from my bed to the car. At the doctor’s office, I needed a wheelchair. I could not walk from the parking lot to the building.

I tested negative for flu. However, my doctor sent me next door to urgent care so they could give me IV fluids and run additional tests. The nurses at urgent care couldn’t get an IV in me, not even in my hand, because I was so severely dehydrated. My husband had left to pick up our oldest from school, thinking I would be at urgent care for a couple of hours at most. Instead, a nurse called him to tell him I was being transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Even then, neither of us knew just how sick I really was.

In the ER, I was quickly brought to an observation room. There, they immediately began to treat me with a cocktail of antibiotics and electrolytes based on my symptoms. My blood pressure was dangerously low and my X-rays showed I had pneumonia. A nurse asked me how long I’d had difficulty breathing. It was then I realized my wheezing hadn’t been asthma, but pneumonia. The neon orange color of my urine was a sign that my kidneys were shutting down due to my low blood pressure.

I was moved to the intensive care unit as soon as a bed was available.

The severity of my illness began to break through the brain fog. I was scared. I didn’t know it at the time, but septic shock has a mortality rate of around 50 percent. Health care professionals say the actual number could be higher. Sepsis can be tricky to diagnose and how it is notated in medical records can vary widely. According to the CDC, more than 1.5 million people are diagnosed with sepsis each year in the United States; about 250,000 of them die.

It is not an exaggeration to say I was almost one of them.

The CDC’s educational campaign “Get Ahead of Sepsis” is working to improve awareness and timely treatment of sepsis. In my case, my cognitive function was so impaired I couldn’t advocate for myself, but knowing the symptoms of sepsis now means I’m less likely to wind up in ICU in the future. Symptoms of sepsis include: confusion or disorientation; shortness of breath; high heart rate; fever, shivering or feeling very cold; extreme pain or discomfort; clammy or sweaty skin. When I was admitted to the hospital, I was experiencing all of these symptoms and a few more that were a result of norovirus and pneumonia.

If I had convinced my husband to let me rest for another day, I likely would have gone into cardiac arrest and died. Instead, I spent a week in the hospital, several months following up with my doctors until all of my test results were normal, and even longer than that regaining my energy and stamina. None of my doctors could tell me why I had gotten so sick, so quickly. But they all said I was lucky.

Now that I know what sepsis and septic shock are, I want everyone to know there are some things you just can’t fight on your own. Not even if you’re a mom.

(Image: iStock / manop1984)