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Spring 2021 - Safety

Sepsis: A Patient’s Perspective

image of woman recovered from sepsis

“IT ALL happened so fast,” recalls sepsis survivor Melissa DuBay. “I had a dental crown that broke at the base, and because it was incorrectly seated, I was told they would have to extract the molar. I had the extraction done on May 5, 2020. I remember it took the endodontist a very long time to extract the tooth, and we now know that’s when the strep bacteria that led to sepsis likely entered my bloodstream.” 

One month after her dental procedure, Melissa awoke with a fever, body aches and pain, and her doctor immediately recommended she get tested for COVID-19. She tested negative, but her symptoms continued to worsen. “I was taking 1,000 mg of Tylenol every six hours four times a day. It would bring the fever down to 99 and then it would shoot back up to 103. I was barely hungry and very weak,” she says. “On the second day, I got up to let my dog out and passed out, and as I crashed to the floor, I broke my nose. I reported this to my primary care doctor who said I probably had low blood pressure and should keep trying to hydrate.”

By the evening of day three, Melissa was still experiencing high fever and chills. That’s when she made the lifesaving decision to call the nurse’s help line. After describing her symptoms, she was advised to go to the emergency room (ER) where she underwent an abdominal ultrasound. She was eventually diagnosed with systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) and sepsis. But because of COVID-19 restrictions, Melissa was alone in the ER and had difficulty processing her dire diagnosis. “I was mentally confused and shivering from the fever,” she explains. “I had no idea what SIRS or sepsis was, or what that meant for me. I really wished I could have a family member with me.”

A subsequent CT scan found Melissa had an enlarged liver with three large abscesses plus a moderately distended gallbladder. “By mid-June, I underwent a procedure called thoracentesis that drained a liter of fluid from my chest wall,” she says. “I was in the most pain I’d ever had in my life — all while still experiencing fever and intense chills.” Melissa’s pain was so intense doctors alternated Dilaudid with Percocet just to take the edge off. In addition, she was continually flushed with IV fluids. “I went into the hospital at 159 pounds and left weighing 207 pounds just from the water retention,” says Melissa.

After two excruciating weeks, Melissa was finally allowed to go home and was assigned visiting nurses. She was also given a midline IV for antibiotics and an oral antibiotic, Lasix for fluid retention and Percocet for the pain.

During her long road to recovery, Melissa says she was too weak to stand in the shower or even walk to the kitchen to eat. She used a shower chair and needed her meals prepared while she regained her strength. Additional troubling side effects were disorientation, mental confusion and memory loss. In total, it took five weeks for Melissa to begin to regain her strength. But the lingering effects of sepsis have been devastating, she explains: “I lost all of the water weight and continued to lose weight, eventually getting down to 135 pounds. At 5 foot 8 inches, I looked like a skeleton. I didn’t feel stronger until about September, and at that point, I had shed half of my hair.”

Melissa says she also experiences post-traumatic stress disorder from any hint of illness now: “I am a diabetic, and we tend to be more prone to infection, so now I always worry that sepsis could occur again from a dental procedure, a bladder infection or something else.”

Melissa lives with lingering pain with every deep breath, and when she laughs, sneezes or even hiccups; doctors say it is likely due to the scar tissue in her lung and liver. “I’m told I may need to accept the fact that this is a permanent way of life for me,” says Melissa. “I still consider myself lucky because if I hadn’t gotten to the ER on day three of the fever, it might have been too late. My hair is finally showing new growth, so I’m happy about that! But at the end of the day, I’m thankful to be alive.”

Trudie Mitschang
Trudie Mitschang is a contributing writer for BioSupply Trends Quarterly magazine.