A life lost to sepsis every 3½ seconds
Diagnosing sepsis within the ‘Golden Hour’ offers the best chance of surviving a potentially lethal condition
In 2005, Dr. Ron Daniels was working in the intensive care unit at the hospital where he had trained. As he walked into the ward prepared for another busy Monday morning, he saw the face of a 37-year-old man named Jem.
“His face was swollen; his lips a purplish blue, the rest of skin cold and mottled,” he recalls. Jem had suffered a heart attack shortly after arriving at the emergency department. He was on ‘maximum support’: medicines for his blood pressure, a ventilator to get oxygen into his lungs, and an artificial kidney machine.
“Despite all that, he was getting worse. It was clear Jem was dying.”
Jem had a wife, named Karen, and two young children called Tom and Emily. Despite his medical skill and experience, Dr. Daniels could not save Jem – a fact that was difficult to explain to the patient’s family.
Despite having previously been in good health, Jem had died of sepsis sometimes known as ‘blood poisoning’. Sepsis is caused by harmful bacteria and their toxins, typically through infection or a wound. It triggers a strong response from the immune system which can damage organs, causing them to fail.
Days before he went to the hospital, Jem had contacted his GP but been told to stay home and rest. By the time Dr. Daniels examined the patient, it was already too late.
That day marked the end of Jem’s life and a terrible blow to his loved ones. It changed Dr. Daniels’ life too, prompting him to devote his career to raising awareness of sepsis.
“I made my decision to spend my working life fixing sepsis. I won’t rest until patients with sepsis are dealt with as quickly and reliably as patients with heart attacks or stroke, every time.”
The Sepsis Trust, which Dr. Daniels founded, has been highlighting the importance of early diagnosis in sepsis, helping doctors, patients and their family to recognise the warning signs as quickly as possible so that the right action can be taken.
The charity says that every three and a half seconds someone dies of sepsis but many of these deaths are preventable.
“Awareness is the number one cure for sepsis. Raising recognition of the disease and increasing the number of patients treated in the ‘Golden Hour’ is the single biggest attempt we can make to save lives,” says Dr. Daniels.
Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose and its symptoms are often confused with other conditions, such as flu. High fever, racing heart rate and a quickened breathing rate are among the initial tell-tale signs.
A blood test can help to make a diagnosis, and other tests include urine or stool samples, a wound culture, saliva testing, blood pressure tests and imaging studies such as x-ray, ultrasound and CT scans.
Given the urgency around early diagnosis, researchers continue to explore ways to cut the diagnosis time. One promising new technology aims to deliver a definitive diagnosis with a certain type of sepsis in a matter of hours.
For his part, Dr. Daniels has developed what he calls the Sepsis Six – six simple steps health professionals can take to diagnose sepsis and reduce the risk that the patient will die. In doing this, he hopes fewer families and doctors will have to repeat the conversation Dr. Daniels had with Jem’s family.