When Lynne Hamlet and her family set off on their dream vacation to Hawaii in June 2018, they had no idea of the nightmare that was soon to come. No, this isn’t the plot of a Netflix movie – it’s real life.
They were there to celebrate a milestone birthday as well as their daughter’s high school graduation. It all started out uneventfully enough until Lynne, Blue Cross and Blue Shield (Blue Cross NC), Director of Privacy, Ethics & Corporate Policy, noticed her throat was feeling sore.
Within a couple of days, it was getting worse. Lynne began to suspect she had strep. So, she headed to urgent care, was quickly diagnosed and received a prescription for an antibiotic. But something felt “off” when, after a few doses of the antibiotic, Lynne wasn’t feeling any better. If anything, she was feeling worse. She had no energy or appetite. But the last thing she wanted was to ruin the family vacation!
After a rough night, Lynne and her husband headed back to the urgent care, about 30 minutes from their hotel. The provider there took one look at Lynne and suggested they go to the hospital emergency room.
A nurse took her vital signs and suddenly, Lynne was surrounded by a flurry of very serious-looking medical professionals all engaged in very serious activities. Lynne wondered what all the fuss was about, sure that she was just suffering from dehydration or some other minor ailment. But her blood pressure of 60/40 and other concerning readings suggested something worse.
“The first word I remember hearing from the ER doctor was ‘sepsis,’” Lynne says.
After that, it was all a blur. Within 30 minutes of arrival, Lynne was being whisked away to have a central line inserted. That’s when the doctor told Lynne’s husband, “If there’s anyone you can call for support, you should – your wife is probably not going to make it.”
“I was lucky,” Lynne says. Intensive treatment with antibiotics and fluids over the next three days brought her back from the brink. She got better. If she hadn’t been so healthy before this happened, things might have turned out very differently.
Lynne learned a lot about health care and the patient experience during those three days, too. “Being in the hospital was horrible,” she says. Lynne says she received exceptional care, but just being a patient – poked and prodded day and night, helpless and exhausted all the time, is tough on anyone. But especially someone who’s never been seriously ill, someone who’s never needed to go to the hospital except for the births of her two children.
“I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for nurses – and all healthcare workers,” Lynne says. “And empathy for our members who have to go through it as well.”
So, what is sepsis? “If you’d asked me ‘before,’ I would have said it was an infection people catch in the hospital,” Lynne says. “But it’s actually your body’s immune system overreacting to an infection you already have,” she explains. And if it happens to you once, your chances of it happening again are higher than for the general population. So Lynne and her family remain vigilant – they don’t take a “wait-and-see” attitude with anything resembling an infection.
Lynne returned home from Hawaii a day later than planned and returned to work a couple of days after that. But it took about six months of sleeping late and taking naps on weekends before she was feeling close to normal. Some have far worse lasting effects including amputations or lung damage.
It’s Sepsis Awareness Month
September is Sepsis Awareness Month. Lynne supports the Sepsis Alliance, which provides great information and resources to the medical community as well as individuals or loved ones who have been touched by sepsis.
Although people are almost always in the hospital for other reasons (for example, cancer or pneumonia), sepsis is the actual cause of death for one in every three people who die in the hospital.
And raising awareness is critical: for every hour treatment is delayed, the risk of death from sepsis increases by as much as 8%. As many as 80% of sepsis deaths could be prevented with rapid diagnosis and treatment. In the US, 270,000 people die from sepsis every year. This is more than opioid overdoses, breast cancer, and prostate cancer combined.
Lynne urges people, “If you have an infection and it’s not getting better, don’t wait to get medical attention. If you’re already receiving medical attention, ask your provider if you might have sepsis. Remember, every second counts.”