To survive sepsis, know the warning signs

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Sepsis is not a familiar word to most of us. The Centers for Disease Control wants to make you aware that it is a medical emergency. It happens outside the hospital in 80 percent of cases, so you need to know the warning signs.

Room 6515 in Medical ICU at the University of Kansas Hospital is where Bob Spaniol spent two weeks in 2009 in total organ failure.

"I think if I'd gotten into the e.d. (emergency department) eight hours or 12 hours later, I might not be here talking today," he said.

Spaniol, who happens to work at K.U. Hospital, had sepsis.

"Sepsis is when your body responds to an infection in a way that becomes poorly regulated or disregulated so that causes life-threatening organ dysfunction," said Dr. Steven Simpson, a specialist in pulmonology and critical care medicine.

The hospital sees around 125 patients a months with sepsis. Many are elderly and have underlying conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease. But others, like Spaniol, were perfectly healthy before. Dr. Simpson said everyone needs to know the warning signs.

"They can pick up the phone and call the doctor and say 'Doc, I may be septic'," Dr. Simpson said.

Signs include shivering, fever or feeling very cold, extreme pain or discomfort, clammy or sweaty skin, confusion, shortness of breath and a high heart rate.

Spaniol's wife sensed serious trouble.

"The really high temperature and rash and the fact I wasn't responding really appropriately," he said.

Dr. Simpson said K.U. Hospital has been able to reduce the death rate of patients with sepsis from 49 percent in 2004 to seven percent in the past year with education of all caregivers about warning signs and what to do when it is sepsis.

"And those are antibiotics are fast as you can get them in and a bolus of IV fluids," he said.

Spaniol recovered completely. To this day, he doesn't know what led to sepsis although he suspects he had infection from a tick bite. Dr. Simpson said in many cases, it's never known what led to sepsis although pneumonia is the most common source.

September is Sepsis Awareness Month.