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Sepsis: The silent killer and why I want to raise awareness

On January 17th 2017, my dad died from sepsis.

Credit: Andrea Byrne

He had fallen ill not long before Christmas with what he thought was a very nasty stomach bug. He didn’t feel he needed to bother the doctor and he certainly wasn’t considering hospital.

Credit: Andrea Byrne

He should have been doing both. Eventually, he was admitted to intensive care. And shortly afterwards, placed in an induced coma where he remained for several days.

My father was placed in an induced coma where he remained for several days Credit: Andrea Byrne

I knew very little about sepsis then. And neither did he. Or maybe we both would have asked different questions, sooner.

Here’s some of what I’ve learnt since:

  • Sepsis develops when your body overreacts to infection.

It could be from something as simple as a cut or maybe from an invasive procedure like surgery. It may initially manifest itself as something like a chest infection or a gastric infection or flu-like symptoms.

  • If left untreated, your body starts to attack itself, and extreme cases could lead to multi-organ failure and death.

It kills more people than strokes and more than lung cancer in Wales. But, in comparison, little is known about it. Perhaps the most important thing to know about sepsis is that it IS very treatable, IF it’s caught early.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about sepsis is that it is very treatable, if it is caught early.

Credit: Sepsis Trust UK

The latest guidelines by the Sepsis Trust say it should be treated with the same emergency reaction as heart attacks or strokes and treatment with antibiotics administered in an initial ‘golden hour’.

If this doesn’t happen, with every hour that goes by, there is around an 8% increased risk of death. It all happens very fast.

This video recorded with Terence Canning from the Sepsis Trust explains how sepsis can "come from anything" because it is "not the infection you have but your body's reaction to it. He says the key thing is early recognition.

Since my dad fell victim to the silent killer, as it’s often known, I’ve been keen to raise awareness of it. This second anniversary, felt like the right time to do so.

It comes as the most recent stats from the NHS Wales Informatics Service show the true scale of the problem of sepsis in Wales. Due to the health service improving their recognition and treatment of sepsis - and a new way of recording sepsis being introduced - the figures reveal a big rise in sepsis cases in hospitals in Wales.

75%
increase in sepsis cases in hospitals in Wales
78%
rise in deaths from sepsis in Wales

Overall, what is clear is that the scale of the problem is huge, and it made my decision to film all the more relevant.

I interviewed two extraordinary women to tell this story, both whose lives are affected by sepsis in very different ways.

Jayne Carpenter lost her limps to sepsis eighteen months ago Credit: Rob Carpenter

Jayne Carpenter, from Merthyr Tydfil, lost her limbs to sepsis over two years ago.

A nurse of 20 years, she thought she had a simple chest infection. Before she knew it, she was in hospital, in a coma and her organs were being overwhelmed.

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Her body went into septic shock and urgent surgery had to be carried out as her limbs were re-infecting the rest of her body. For more than two months, it was touch-and-go every single day.

But Jayne remains undeterred by her near-death experience and life-changing surgery.

Instead she is an avid fundraiser and campaigner for sepsis awareness. Her and her husband Rob are a force to be reckoned with, and a truly wonderful couple.

Next on my journey, I met Eve. I knew that, as a nurse, she was winning awards for the work she was doing around sepsis, but I wanted to know more.

She used to work in A&E and intensive care, but then moved to the community where she realised there was no system in place for district nurses and GPs to consistently check for sepsis.

With evidence showing that 70% of sepsis cases start in the community, she set about to change that, pushing for the same scoring system used in hospitals to be brought into the community.

Now she’s training other nurses up, and helping to save lives with early recognition and early intervention.

Jayne and Eve were both working to make a difference. The kind of difference that maybe could have helped my dad.

But one thing that still stood out for me, was a lack of public awareness of sepsis. An awareness that, considering the importance of early treatment, surely must be of prime importance. And that’s something I wanted to put to the Health Minister Vaughan Gething.

Would the Welsh Government back an official awareness campaign? Why had the true extent of the sepsis issue not been addressed before? Was there going to be extra funding for sepsis considering the stats? And what help would there be for survivors whose lives had changed so dramatically?

Mr Gething said the figures have driven home the full scale of the problem, and he emphasised to me that the Welsh Government is leading the way with its sepsis early warning scoring system in hospitals, which is being rolled out in communities too. He said it is also trying to save more lives with the Sepsis Six treatment bundle it has introduced in hospitals.

What the Health Minister will not commit to is backing an official awareness campaign in Wales. Vaughan Gething told me he needs "more evidence" that it would work, before he would consider one. The Health Minister has also committed to introducing a Sepsis Registry in Wales to gather more evidence about sepsis and its victims in order to see if more funding can be made available.

The answers may not have been everything I wanted to hear, but it was a comfort to know the severity with which the Minister was approaching sepsis.

And I hope from my filming and this article alone, that I might have encouraged one person who might be wondering ‘Could it be Sepsis?’ to ask a medical professional and seek the necessary help before it’s too late.