Ellie’s Sepsis Story - How Surviving Sepsis Opened up a New Perspective on Life

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August 16th was the day my life changed forever.

On August 14th, I was supposed to captain my school hockey team in my last ever quadrangular hockey tournament. In the early hours of the morning I woke up vomiting which kept me up till the morning. It got to midday, and I had stopped vomiting, so I thought that I would go and watch my team play. Being a regularly fit and healthy person, being ill was very rare for me, so I did not imagine anything, which was soon to be changed, so extreme.

Initially, I just thought I had an upset stomach, or some sort of bug as the vomiting stopped during the day. However, it had become the evening of the 14th when the vomiting started again, which kept me up all night. After a little bit of sleep I woke up on the morning of the 15th with an unusually sore lower right leg. I concluded that I just had a cramp from dehydration after all of the vomiting so I decided to stretch my leg out. Again, I went to the hockey turf and watched my team play. Afterwards, I went out for coffee and sat down for a while, but when I went to stand up to leave I couldn’t actually walk on my leg which was in a significant amount of pain. Again thinking it was cramp, I went to see my physio to get checked. In an attempt to stretch it out, the physio put me on a spin bike. This didn’t work so I was sent home with a pair of crutches and some electrolytes. Later that evening, I had lost my appetite and was feeling very feverish so my mum decided to take me to the urgent doctors. After waiting for about an hour in the waiting room, feeling very agitated and uneasy, I was told by the doctor that I had ‘some sort of virus attacking my muscles’ so was sent home with paracetamol and a recommendation for my mum to check up on me every now and then throughout the night.

During the night, I woke up with extreme vomiting - it was then I knew something was seriously wrong so we decided to go down to the hospital. As I was explaining my situation to the triage nurse I told them I was feeling like vomiting again so I was taken straight in and put on fluids. They started taking bloods, and as they were doing this I was told that generally they wouldn’t do this to patients whom they thought had gastro as it was risky for them to be without isolation in regard to its ease of transmission. However, as they were still very unsure of my condition I was put in isolation due to my bloods coming back with unusual results. My blood pressure was very low and my right leg pain was getting increasingly worse so I was on constant monitoring in the ED with an advise to all those entering my room to kit up in full protective gear in an attempt to avoid the transmission of the suspected gastro bug.

After a night in the emergency department, I was shifted into a general ward. Still unknown of my condition I remained in isolation while I was put through tests. My bloods were still coming back with concerning results so I was put on precautionary antibiotics as I was showing the signs of some sort of infection. After being put on IV antibiotics I was sent to have an ultrasound on my leg. After a lot of waiting around without an answer as to what was going on due to legalities as to who was allowed to tell me what they thought I had going on, I was sent back to my room.

Later that evening, I was visited by a team of doctors who told me to prepare for bad news. I was told that I had a very large deep vein thrombosis that run from the top of the groin to the bottom of the knee and it was of large concern. I was also told that I had a very unusual infection going on that was not responding to the general antibiotics which was of higher priority due to the fact that if the infection did not respond, all sorts of complications could arise, such as organ failure etc. This put me in a very high risk position so it was then that I was moved to the coronary care unit for constant monitoring. Later in the week, I was told by my parents that it was at this point that the doctors had a meeting with them highlighting how serious my case actually was. They basically said that I was a very, very sick girl and if I had not gone to the emergency department when I did at midnight on the 15th, by the morning of the 16th it was likely that the infection present in my blood would have taken my life.

My first night in the ICU was hectic. I was immediately put through plasma infusions due to the fact that my blood was too thick from all of the fluids I had taken since arriving at the hospital. The plasma infusions would attempt to prepare my blood for thinning which was the next step to try and sort out the DVT in my leg. It was also at this point that I was going through different strains of antibiotics of which I still wasn’t responding to. This was the highest priority as it was concluded I had sepsis from an unknown source. This was frustrating the doctors immensely, as if the source was known, we could possibly target a specific area of where the infection was originating. Also during this time, options were considered as to how the DVT was to be dealt with, options such as temporarily shutting me off from the waist down and operating to open up the leg were considered but due to my leg still being responsive, the option of IV heparin was chosen.

I went through a day of not being able to speak due to weakness, this really hit home to the close family visiting me. In retrospect, I find it funny how during that time of extreme pain I remained so positive – I guess I didn’t know the severity of my illness and the other option as to how the events could’ve played out…which helped a lot.

For the remainder of the week, I went through highs and lows. I started to respond to a strain of antibiotics which was extremely positive. However, I did go through days where extracting blood became very difficult and one day I did notice a pain in my chest that had made breathing very difficult and painful. After testing, this turned out to be a pulmonary embolism that had caused internal bleeding in my lungs. This was extremely painful and was what was earlier in the week described by the doctor as one of the main worries of what the DVT could progress to. I was lucky in some sense that the PE went to my lung rather than other areas such as the heart or it could’ve been a totally different story. Throughout the week, ICU continued regular testing to assess whether I should stay in the ICU.

My case started to become known throughout the hospital as the ’18 year old in the coronary care unit’ as it was very unusual to see someone so young, with such a rare illness for my age in a coronary care unit alongside patients somewhat 60 years older than me. I eventually progressed throughout the week to the point where I was fit enough to be discharged in a wheelchair 10 kilograms lighter with the remainder of the clot still present in my leg and a right lung in which the PE had killed some of its tissue.

This experience really opened up to me what actually matters most in life when you are left fighting for it. To me, positivity was key – if I didn’t think I was going to make it then I believe that the process would’ve been a lot tougher. As much pain as I went through both mentally and physically, I can still admit that the experience has changed me for the better, my outlook on life is focused now on treasuring every moment as I now know how fragile life can be. I am now so passionate about the global fight against sepsis and am so incredibly humbled to be able to share my story alongside some incredible people.

The article above was written by Ellie Duncan and is shared here with her explicit consent. The views in the article do not necessarily represent those of the Global Sepsis Alliance. They are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The whole team here at the GSA and World Sepsis Day wishes to thank Ellie for sharing her story and for fighting to raise awareness of sepsis.

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Marvin Zick