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My Story: When the Signs of Sepsis are Missed

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog

Amy Widener
Amy Widener

Guest Author: Amy Widener
Sepsis survivor

March 13, 2013, my body went into septic shock.

January 12, 2013, I ran the Disney half marathon. At 38, I was in the best shape of my life. One week later I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. I made my way to the bathroom floor with intense abdominal pain that took my breath away. My husband rushed me to the ER where a cat-scan revealed a kink in my intestines. No real explanation was given, but the solution was emergency surgery to cut out the blocked part of the intestines and put me back together. When I awoke from surgery, the report was that all went well. I was discharged from the hospital 10 days later when my bowels ‘woke up’ from surgery and all systems seemed to be functioning.

In hindsight, what happened over the next several weeks should have been our alert. The pain after this surgery grew worse instead of better. In just under 6 weeks I lost 22 pounds. I had chills and extreme pain after I ate and often ran a low grade fever. My doctor dismissed my complaints and told me it would take more time for my intestines to heal. I had no energy to argue.

I knew in my gut – literally and physically – that something was very wrong. I missed my daughter’s birthday party after spending the night before in the ER when the pain was so intense only to be sent home with a strong course of antibiotics and told I must have some colitis as a result of the surgery. Three days later my body could take no more. No food or liquid would stay down and I found myself back in the ER. This time I knew I was not going home with antibiotics.

I was too sick to ingest the barium required for a CAT scan, so the attending physician ordered an abdominal x-ray. This revealed what they diagnosed as a small bowel obstruction, likely caused by the surgery. I was admitted to the hospital and placed on NPO – nothing by food or mouth. The doctor on call raised the concern that I was malnourished and needed to have supplemental nutrition immediately. A PICC line was inserted into my arm and total parenteral nutrition (TPN) began. The doctor’s orders were to wait and hope that the bowel obstruction would resolve on its own.

As I sat in my hospital bed those next few days, my belly began to swell. The nausea could no longer be contained and a nasogastric intubation (NG) tube had to be inserted to remove pressure and bile from my stomach. By day 5, my abdomen was so distended that I looked like I was in my third trimester. I was weak and in pain. The doses of morphine did nothing. Finally, a test was ordered. The radiologist recommend further study as something was not right, but my doctor declined. The nurses were helpless. That evening my vitals told the story. My heart rate fluctuated between 150-160 bpm, my blood pressure rapidly dropped. Nurses called the doctor when my BP hit 89/53. By 6 AM on March 13, my BP had dipped to 63/51, and I was finally transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU).

The ICU doctors pushed for surgery ASAP, because they did not think I could survive. This is the last thing that I remember until I woke up on April 5, 24 days later.

What my family learned from the ICU team was that my body was in septic shock. The clues were there; we just didn’t know how to recognize them. My family never left my side. They took turns holding my hands while a ventilator pushed air in and out of my lungs, and my body swelled from the flood of fluids and antibiotics.

At the point when my organs were shutting down, and the team had performed every medical intervention that they could, my husband was called at 4 AM and told to get to the hospital as quickly as he could. When he arrived he was told that there was nothing else that could be done and that when the last bag of fluid ran out, my heart would likely stop beating. Thankfully it did not quit. I defied the odds.

We understand now that my Disney half marathon training is what prepared my heart for the real life marathon I was to endure. It took a new medical team, two additional surgeries, another full year of supplemental IV nutrition, countless hours of physical therapy and sheer determination to get me where I am today.

I am lucky to be alive, and thriving, and grateful for the ICU team that saved my life, but reminded that more has to be done to educate families, nurses, and doctors to recognize the early signs of sepsis so that patients do not have to suffer what I did.

Amy Widener, is a real estate consultant, mother of two and sepsis survivor

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog

101 comments on “My Story: When the Signs of Sepsis are Missed”

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    April 29,2020 is the day I drove to my moms house and told her “let’s go I’m taking you to the ER.” It’s been a LONG time that she hasn’t felt very well, but 3 days prior, she was complained about having the chills. The day I decided to take her, she told me that she woke up with a fever and had threw up earlier in the day. Let’s rewind back a little. Sometime last year, she would tell me how she couldn’t walk for very long, or she would start losing her breath and coughing up a storm, she would also get unbearable pains she would say under her right rib. She was seeing her doctor on a regular basis, so she brought the problems up. First she was diagnosed with MS, (I knew that was a bunch of crap, because there was no testing), immediately after that, they said she probably has COPD. Instead of questioning these diagnoses, it was going to be something she was just going to accept. I said “mom don’t believe that b.s their telling you, because you don’t have either.” October comes, I take her to the ER. They test her for the flu, it comes back negative. They send her home. December, she starts developing the worst cough I’ve ever heard in my life!! It was horrible. She would cough 24/7, couldn’t even sleep at night. Her rib pain would also become more persistent. She would complain about not feeling well but wouldn’t really explain when I’d ask. I took her to the ER. Tested her for strep and flu, both negative,said yeah it’s probably caused from copd, follow up with your dr. I took her to the ER AGAIN January,February and March!! Each time she’s sent home with no answers!! In March I remember her saying, look at these red dots on me, I think I’m getting a rash(they were tiny pin size dots on her chest and arms). Ok mom, come on let’s go. The dr was like 🤔 hmm. Have you used any new soap or anything? Sends her home with no answers(still has the horrible cough,and rib pain and has also lost her voice for a while now, it was gone for over a month!). April 29th comes. I’m terrified to even take her because of covid, but we have no other choice. I can only drop her off at a white tent to be tested for covid, because of cough,fever,confusion,she could barely walk, she said she felt dizzy. I waited in the parking lot for an hour and a half. The nurse calls and says were keeping your mom, her oxygen levels were low. That night, they admit her. 3 days later, I’m talking to her on the phone. Remind you, they’ve done nothing to help her. All they’ve done at this point is the same blood test everyday. She tells me, you know they have me on the covid floor? What??! How do you know? Someone came in my room today, and told me. This was days after testing negative. I call the nurse,she says we’ve had people test negative, but still have it, so we’re treating her as if she does, the dr wants to test her again to make sure. Negative again. They transferred her floors the next day. The dr comes in and tells her, that she has a blood infection, and an abscess in her liver. They waited a day or 2 to finally do surgery. At this point she was there for 7 days!!! She gets out of surgery, I finally get ahold of her and she is in excruciating pain, she’s almost screaming. She’s feeling 100x worse than she did before..I knew something was wrong. This went on for days! She started to seem a little delusional, would say weird things. Just seemed almost totally out of it. The nurse said I don’t know what’s going on, I think it’s the medicine (even though it wasn’t helping her pain at all). Another nurse said she would need rehabilitation when leaving, because she can’t take much weight on her legs (can’t really walk at all), and has lost control of her bladder and bowel movements. I’m thinking, this is enough!! I start googling. I call the nurse and ask her if my mom has sepsis. She said let me check her charts, oh the dr did put she has septicemia. But everything’s ok. Ok??! She’s been in severe pain for over a week, it’s not getting any better! Now she’s losing control of her body something is wrong!!! After 13 days, she’s FINALLY transferred to another hospital, because she needs another surgery. An ERCP to remove a stone from her duct that’s causing the infection to reoccur in the liver. She’s been in the hospital 17 days now. 2 surgeries later, and a chest tube to drain fluid in her lungs, she says she’s feeling a lot better. I can tell she’s still in some pain, but nothing compared to before. This new hospital she’s at is taking so much more care of her, and actually showing that they care. I looked at her online charts today, and realize that the same tests were being administered each day, with the results getting worse every time. By the tests they were running, I know they had to of know the problem the second day she was there. I just don’t understand what took them so long to help her. I’m still so worried, because I’ve spent everyday, researching every test, every meaning, low and high ranges, causes, treatments. Everything I possibly can, so I can help her heal. This whole time I wondered if her pain was caused by septicemia, and I see here that it might be the case. When I ask the nurses, they say it’s from the tube to her liver, but I couldn’t believe it would cause that much pain. I wonder how long this problem has actually been going on, and how so many times it could have been detected!! 6 out of 7 months she was seen in the ER that’s not counting the 5 times between January and March she also went to the urgent care and was put on antibiotics every time. I ran into an article before this, that said the pin size reds dots and constant cough are signs of septicemia..how could this not cross their minds?! I haven’t been able to see her due to the pandemic, I can only pray that she’s on her way to recovery with the right treatment.

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