The decision that saved Michael’s life from sepsis
Tuesday 14 January 2020
It was late on a Sunday night when Brisbane man Michael, 71, made a decision that possibly saved his life. He’d been feeling unwell for a couple of days and had seen his GP, who gave him antibiotics for a urinary tract infection.
Michael was told the medicine could make him feel unsteady, but now he was so dizzy he was having trouble getting out of bed. He needed to urinate but couldn’t, and he was starting to feel more and more unwell. Michael was alone; his wife was away in Sydney for a family event, and his adult children had all moved out of home.
He reasoned that he could go back to bed, try to sleep it off, and see how he felt in the morning. Or, he could ring an ambulance, tell them that he was getting concerned, his condition was deteriorating, and no one was with him. Michael chose the second option.
“You know how the mind thinks when you’re by yourself and it’s night time,” says Michael. “I thought to myself, I don’t think I can keep going like this. I need medical help.”
Michael’s decision might have saved his life. He had sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by an abnormal response from the body to an infection. A few hours later, while he was in hospital, Michael’s organs began to shut down. He spent four days in the Intensive Care Unit and a total of seven days in hospital recovering. He went home with a course of strong antibiotics and spent the next few weeks slowly regaining his health.
Michael was lucky. Every year, more Queensland adults die from sepsis than breast, prostate and colorectal cancer combined. Sepsis survivors are often left with long-term physical, psychological and cognitive impairments. Timely treatment is critical when it comes to sepsis; if he hadn’t trusted his instincts and called the ambulance, Michael might not have survived.
What is sepsis?
Sepsis is also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning. It occurs when the body’s response to an infection causes damage to healthy tissues and organs.
Sepsis can be caused by any type of infection – viral, fungal, or bacterial. It most commonly occurs with bacterial infections of the lungs, urinary tract (bladder, urethra, kidneys), abdomen, skin and soft tissues. It can lead to tissue damage, multiple organ failure and death.
Michael had prostatitis, a condition where a bacterial infection causes the prostate gland to swell up. It was this infection that caused his sepsis.
What are the signs and symptoms of sepsis?
After Michael arrived at the hospital, his symptoms began to get more severe.
“All of a sudden I went into uncontrollable shivering,” he says. “I couldn’t stop it. It felt like something was under my skin and I was freezing. They kept telling me I was actually hot; I had a shirt on at the time and it was absolutely soaking wet with sweat.”
“I can’t remember what happened after that, but my son was there, and he said they worked on me for about three hours. He said there were about ten specialists in the room at one stage.”
Later, Michael was told that at that point, his organs had begun to shut down.
“I couldn’t breathe, and they put an oxygen mask on me. At that point they decided to move me up to the ICU. That was the most uncomfortable three days of my life.”
There is no single symptom of sepsis. It can initially look like the flu, gastro, or a typical urinary, skin, or chest infection. Symptoms can vary from person to person and are different for adults and children.
Symptoms of sepsis in adults
Adults with sepsis might experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Fast breathing
- Fast heartbeat
- Skin rash or clammy/sweaty skin
- Weakness or aching muscles
- Not passing much (or any) urine
- Feeling very hot or cold, chills or shivering
- Feeling confused, disoriented, or slurring your speech
- Feeling very unwell, extreme pain or the ‘worst ever’.
Adults with sepsis might express that they feel like they are dying or that they have never been so sick and are worried about their health.
Symptoms of sepsis in children
Children with sepsis might experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Fast breathing
- Convulsions or fits
- A rash that doesn’t fade when pressed
- Discoloured or blotchy skin, or skin that is very pale or bluish
- Not passing urine (or no wet nappies) for several hours
- Not feeding or eating
- A high or very low temperature
- Sleeping, confused or irritable
- Pain or discomfort that doesn’t respond to ordinary pain relief like paracetamol.
What should I do if I think I have sepsis?
Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency. If you or someone you are caring for experiences any of the above symptoms, head straight to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance, and ask, ‘Could this be sepsis?’.
Infections can cause sepsis even if a person has already seen a doctor for medical treatment, like Michael had. If your condition deteriorates, you need to seek further, emergency medical attention.
Michael’s advice for other Queenslanders: don’t be a hero
“I’d never heard of sepsis before,” says Michael. “When I finally got home I started looking it up and realised I’m lucky I didn’t lose any limbs or anything like that. It really makes you think.”
Michael now encourages other Queenslanders to trust their instincts when they’re unwell.
“If I hadn’t called that ambulance by myself, I might not have made it, which plays on the mind a bit,” he says. “That’s my advice for other people: there’s no use being a hero and trying to ride it out. When you’re feeling that crook, see someone to get it checked out.”
More information about sepsis