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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

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

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    I have been nurse for over 40 years .I’m 60 years old I work in a small hospital .I’m a R.N. with lots of experience and one of my roles in my current position is to audit our sepsis charts. Last December a few of the staff became sick with flu like symptoms .I also became sick with what I thought was the flu . On a Thursday I had a headache all day and on my way home from work began shaking uncontrollably .I took my temperature and it was 103 oral that night I started throwing up .I drank as many fluids as I could and took Motrin for the headache my temp went down to 101 oral and stayed that way Friday ,Saturday and Sunday and the vomiting had stopped. Monday I stayed home from work because I was to weak to get out of bed. Tuesday and Wednesday I felt a bit feverish and weak but I went to work. My granddaughter had a Christmas program so I had only planned on working half a day .I found it very hard to walk any distance at all without becoming very short of breath. After the program I decided I might need some blood work or antibiotics because I was so weak ,short of breath, still had a low grade fever and my color started to look a bit yellow .At Urgent Care the N.P. listened to my story thought I should go to the E.D. because she was convinced by my appearance I was very ill .I told her “it’s just what everyone else has “she sent me to lab for blood work .My blood work was not good WBC 28,Bilirubin was high, lactate was high, Creatine ,BUN were both high, GFR was 10.I was in acute renal failure and septic my pulse was 130 ,B/P 88/60,Tempature 101 oral after Motrin. Needless to say I was hospitalized. My blood cultures grew E Coli and I received fluids, antibiotics ,anti- nausea medications , and Tylenol for pain. I had developed a rash on my back and a cough while in the hospital . I recovered and did not have to have dialysis and did not have to have a port .I was very lucky ,currently I have a few small lesions in my right kidney and a few small liver lesions that have shown some improvement over the past year . My labs have all improved and are normal except for my GFR which I can not get over 45.I just want people to know sepsis is a silent killer and if I would have waited another 24 hours I might not be sharing my story.

    My 20 year old son was undergoing chemotherapy for rhabdomyosarcoma and was neutropenia. I brought him to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. His heart rate was elevated and he was in so much pain. He did not have a fever so they diagnosed him with constipation! For 17 hours I begged for them to do something, I knew something else was going on with him. He had 10/10 pain and he had a huge pain tolerance. I begged the oncologist on call to come in and see him but she didn’t. His life was basically in the hands of residents. They finally ordered antibiotics after 13 hours and only hung one of the three ordered. He ended up coding 3 times and dying. Doctors need to realize you don’t always have a fever with an infection, especially when you have a .1 white blood cells! Who ever heard of diagnosing anyone, let alone a cancer patient with constipation in stead of ruling out the most emergent differential diagnosis first?!

    We just arrived to work today with the news that a fellow co worker had passed away. Many of us were unaware that he recently had stomach bypass surgery. What we have learned is he had complications from surgery and returned to the hospital in severe pain. Since then he had 2 additional surgeries and eventually was put on dialysis due to kidney failure. He died yesterday from sepsis, which brought me to this article. How can a young man (approx. 30 yrs old) suddenly die from something he thought was going to make him healthier ? All this within a 2 week period.

    Sure sounds like a lawsuit to me!! My brother in law is going thru the samething I just hope the hospital caught his sepsis in time? Sadly enough he was at the Er the week before then transferred to a rehab center and was diagnosed with a Uti but apparently the wrong antibiotics not given and he went into sepsis… I hope and pray I can report a good ending to this horrible tragedy that people are facing and its Sad !!! The medical field need to get their act together especially the doctors who make the final decisions on the patients treatment. !!!

    Mary I am so sorry. Yes you need to contact someone for legal help ASAP. The day that you posted this we were at the doctors office and he didn’t like what he saw. He took blood work and later that evening he called us and said get to the ER NOW!!!!
    His vital signs along with the blood results were all signs. The blood count results should have been red flagged!!!
    Someone missed these symptoms. He saw multiple people while sick.

    I wish I could write that my sweet, much loved, 76 year old husband of 57 years survived urosepsis. He had been unable to eat w/o nearly vomiting for about 2 weeks. Meanwhile, he was scheduled for a procedure to treat a growth on his liver by threading a thin tube through the thigh directly to the growth and place radium right into the growth. They assured us it was caught very early and there should be no repercussions. We were so thankful because it was caught by chance: an annual lung x-ray. Because of his symptoms, I suggested his gastro do a barium swallow and endoscopy. Negative. But no urinalysis! Then, the day before he was to have the cancer surgery, he was so sick I took him to the doctor’s office. The doctor wasn’t there, but the PA took charge, examined him, did a complete blood workup, but NO URINALYSIS. I even reminded them he needed a catheter and I could get one from the car, but the nurse said they had some, not to worry. She sent him to the infusion area where he was given an hour of saline drip due to dehydration, and sent home. That was Wednesday afternoon. On Friday morning, he was sicker, so we went to the ER. They immediately admitted him to ICU. He had full-blown septicemia. He coded the next morning and his heartbeat stopped early Sunday morning. I can’t believe he’s gone. We were high school sweethearts and did everything together. Does anyone see a malpractice suit in this scenario?

    I went into the hospital delirious,
    Couldn’t walk on my own. At home I
    Had severe vomiting and direrrha,
    And pain! At the hospital they
    Determined I had an infected
    Gall bladder. I also had the symptoms
    Of sepsis, fortunately they
    Immediately treated me for sepsis.
    Two days in intensive care, on oxygen!
    As I appeared to be doing better I
    Was put in an ambulance transported
    An hour and a half away. I went into
    Surgery, recieved a stent or shunt
    That would allow gall stones to
    Pass while my gallbladder began
    To heal from infection. Spent a week
    In the hospital, don’t remember three
    To four days. I was barely ready to
    Go home. Still no mention of sepsis!!
    Home, on oral antibiotics, so sick to
    My stomach, two days later I was
    Not able to walk. A few days later
    Saw primary care physican, he ordered blood tests and physical
    Therapy. Went home still no
    Mention of sepsis. Could not eat,
    Could not walk, vomiting and direarra,
    Could not write or think for work.
    Second or third visit to therapy finally
    Found is was sepsis. Now I could educate myself. I was fortunate in
    Many ways but it was a long road
    Back to some semblance of functioning normally. I would
    Consider my self fortunate! I
    Dove in to information about sepsis.
    Has so many symptoms but I rally
    To tell friends and family❤️

    In 2009 I had the job of my dreams, a pregnant wife and had just finished refurbishing our lovely family home. I had a minor surgery. It became infected. The following happened every month.
    1. I went into septic shock.
    2. I was rushed to the hospital.
    3. They gave me IV general antibiotics for 10 days and sent me home.
    4. 14 days later my fever spiked. My arms began to hit my body uncontrollably.
    5. Admitted to hospital with septic shock, severe pain and high grade fever.
    Then the following accumulated with every episode if septic shock/fever/severe pain plus:
    Month 1 I came out OK.
    Month 2 blurred vision then blind in my right eye. IV 10 days…home.
    Month 3 left hand stopped working and went numb. 10 days IV….home.
    Month 4 my torso felt numb as nerves burnt out. Nurses said I will make the hospital stats look great as they are targeted with patient turnover. 10 days IV…home. made redundant from dream job due to ill health.
    Month 5 my legs went like lead weights. 10 days IV…home.
    Month 6 my brain became permanently damaged. 10 days IV…home.
    Month 7 my bladder and bowel were damaged. 10 days IV…home.
    Month 8/9 I purposely lost 4 stone. Added high doses of Omega 3 and D3.
    Month 10. Sepsis came back. Nurses couldn’t believe the Doctors using me as patient turnover stats. 10 days IV…home.
    Month 11 I got so used to A+E that I knew staff. One junior Doctor thought it was MRSA so gave me very strong IV Vancomycin. After 24 hours the Doc said to stop the Vancomycin as it kills everything known to man. That stopped it.
    I was left brain damaged, severely disabled, changed personality, angry, in agony.

    A decade later: brain fried, sepsis still gone, co ordination gone, balance poor, memory poor, anger issues, feeling of worthlessness and being a burden.

    My husband of 35 years had surgery on his back on 10/30/17. He walked into the hospital. The surgery was longer than expected. About 2 days after surgery started with a high fever, 104 and up. He remained in the hospital for 7 days and was then transferred to the medical rehab hospital for physical therapy for 14 days. I was told that because this was a medical facility the doctor and staff would monitor the fevers. My husband was 66 years old and had non insulin dependent diabetes. On the 7th day with a temperature of 99 he was discharged to the rehab hospital. He lasted 9 days at the rehab hospital and had to be sent back to the medical hospital confused, back pain and septic. Even his brain was infected but was given a new diagnoses of early onset dementia in the 9 days he was at rehab. He never returned home. He spent almost 5 months in the hospital trying to find an antibiotic that would stop the infection. The infection was called a hospital acquired surgical site infection that they believed happened during the surgery 10/30/17. He had to undergo 3 additional surgeries in the same area in his back in order to clean out the infection in his back before the infection could get to the hardware in his back. The last surgery on his back was 1/13/18 and that surgery left him paralyzed from the waist down, never to walk again. The official response from all the medical providers was that they were so sorry that this happened to him but it wasn’t the hospital’s fault and infection is a risk that you take when you have surgery. His strain of infection was one that antibiotics don’t work. He was discharged to a nursing home under hospice care where he died almost 3 months later. He died July 14th 2018. The cause of death listed on his death certificate was Sepsis. Contributing conditions but did not cause his death were paraplegia and encephalopathy. Enough said I guess. I ask how could a normally heathy person except for diabetes end up this way? What can be done to prevent this from happening to someone else. How can this happen? My heart goes out to the families that lost their loved one and those that survived this are truly blessed to still be alive. There has got to be more of a alarm to sound, we should be screaming concerning sepsis at this point. There is no reason in this day and time that something like this should happen to a person that entered the hospital for an operation and never go home. Somebody needs to help me understand this in 2019.

    I went to the local ER with nausea and vomiting and pain in the left lower abdomen. They did a CT and told me I had a kidney stone, I told them I have had that for ten years. They sent me home with a strainer, and instructions to drink and take Tylenol. About 4 to 6 hours later I returned to the ER. I do not remember what happened at the second visit except that I was shivering so bad my teeth clattered. I remember telling the nurse I couldn’t go home, after they told me they were discharging me, I told her I needed to lay down. She gave me a smug look and pointed to an empty cot. I do not recall how long I laid there but I woke with dry heaves and needing to pee. No one paid attention to me and I knew I was in trouble. I’ve no idea how I got to the pharmacy and I had no idea how I drove home, because I had everything I could do to stand upright. When I got home I took one of the pain pills they prescribed and one of the zofran tablets for nausea. I went to bed and around 8:30 ish the phone rang and woke me up ( that call saved my life). Needing to go to the bathroom I realized I was staggering like a drunk and was voiding only small squirts. I called the ER and they said to increase my fluids. I cannot stress that my mental acuity was so bad at this point. I called my primary doctor and spoke to a covering person who told me I needed to get back to the ER. I got off the phone and cried because I knew that ER wasn’t going to help me. I also knew I couldn’t drive! So I called my daughter who lives a half hour away and she brought me to the hospital in her city. The minute I walked in their door, they were on top of me! A central line, 2 IVs and a whole host of other interventions for septic shock. My BP was dangerously low, I had 5 bags of IV fluids and medications. I was transferred to an ICU and then a lower level of care for 4 days. This was over three weeks ago. The day before this started I had been a very active person and swam an hour and a quarter at the gym. Now I am home and I have such extreme weakness and fatigue it makes me wonder if I will ever be over this. The first ER my white count was 16.200 and by the time I got to the other ER it was 32,000+. If they had given me antibiotics things could have been very different! I have lost weight, and as I said the exhaustion is crippling. I just wondered if this will ever get better?

    On 10/30/17 my husband, a 66 year old diabetic had surgery on his back. He needed some rods and screws to stabilize his back. The surgery was longer than expected, closer to 5 hours rather than the expected 2 hours. A couple of days after surgery he started having high fevers, was placed on antibiotics and then released from the hospital after 7 days to the medical rehab hospital for 2 weeks and then was supposed to go home. He spent 9 days at the rehab hospital and then on the 10th day, early morning he was sent back to the medical facility emergency room with a high temperature and a fluid buildup in his back, mentally confused and in pain.
    The diagnosis was Sepsis, no antibiotic worked on it, he remained in the hospital for 5 months trying to treat it. He had 3 additional surgeries on his back to try to clean out the infection in the surgical site which made a total of 4 back surgeries from 10/30/17 to 1/13/18. The last surgery on his back left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was sent to a nursing home under hospice care for 3 months and he went home to the Lord on 7/14/18. He never came home after the surgery. The infection was called by the hospital a HOSPITAL ACQUIRED SURGERY SITE INFECTION. I will never understand what happened here and why my husband of 35 years is no longer living. I also don’t understand why in situations like infections that attorneys don’t take these cases. I believe that if there was a chance of lawsuits maybe hospitals would take infections more seriously. His death certificate list the immediate cause of death as Sepsis. I am trying not to be angry but I will never understand how this infection was so detailed in his body and no one saw this coming and why there was no antibiotic that would get rid of it. He never went home, he was in the hospital from the day of surgery until he was discharged 5 months later. He also had 2 readmission for 2 weeks each while in the nursing home. I appreciate all of the letters and blessed to see so many survive after sepsis. Something has got to be done with this. God Bless the survivors and your families.

    I am currently in hospital for the past 13days I want to get up and walk but can’t breathe and no energy any tips

    I am a sepsis survivor. The first week of April 2019 I came down with Type A flu and strep. I ended up in ICU four days later with double pneumonia. After a six day stay in the hospital, I was sent home with four days of antibiotics. After a couple weeks I went back to work. I was still exhausted all the time and some days I couldn’t go in. I had a short period of maybe three weeks where I felt better, but it didn’t last. I made multiple visits back to my primary care dr complaining of extreme exhaustion, blurry vision, joint pain and aches… I told him I felt this way ever since the pneumonia. He ran tests for arthritis, lupus, and who knows what else. On May 24th, I came in for a follow up visit. He said my inflammation levels were very high and incorrectly diagnosed me with Epstein Barr Virus. I told him I felt like I was dying. I knew something was very wrong with me. I went to work and later the same day I began to have excruciating pain in my left side chest. Thinking it may be my heart, I went to the ER. Turns out I had Pleurisy, still had pneumonia and now sepsis! I don’t remember much from the first few days in the hospital. They started several IV antibiotics immediately while they waited for the blood cultures. Luckily the blood infection was MSSA staph…one that responds to antibiotics. I spent 8 days in the hospital and came home with a PICC line to receive 30 days of IV antibiotics at home. I’m still very tired all the time. My hair has come out in handfuls, but I feel very blessed to be alive. My advice is trust your body! I literally told my dr I felt like I was dying. I should have gotten a second opinion.

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