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Nova Scotia women warn others of life-threatening infection by sharing personal stories

Brenda Smith, left, and Diane Moffatt were unaware of the dangers of sepsis until it came into their lives. Diane was seriously ill with it in July 2016, while Brenda’s husband, Carl, contracted sepsis in October of that year.
Brenda Smith, left, and Diane Moffatt were unaware of the dangers of sepsis until it came into their lives. Diane was seriously ill with it in July 2016, while Brenda’s husband, Carl, contracted sepsis in October of that year. - Lynn Curwin

Truro, N.S.

When Diane Moffatt went into hospital for day surgery, she expected to soon be back to her usual self, but things took an unexpected- and almost fatal- turn.

On July 8, 2016, she had an ovary removed. The next day she went home with nine staples in her stomach.

“A week later I went to get staples out,” said the Truro woman. “The incision was red, there was a smell and I had a slight fever, so I was given oral antibiotics.

“That night my fever was worse and I was having problems breathing and was a little delusional.”

She was taken to hospital by ambulance, but because it was a busy night she spent time waiting on a stretcher in the hallway.

A section of skin about five centimeters long was infected, and had to be removed, and Moffatt was admitted and placed on intravenous antibiotics.

“Three days later I was getting pockets of fluid all over my body, called cellulitis,” she said. “My temperature was rising and I was rushed into surgery.

“My family was called, and I was told later I died on the table.

“When I woke up I was hooked to a VAC machine (which decreases air pressure on a wound to promote quicker healing) and had an incision 34 cm long, six cm wide, and six cm deep.”

She went home after two weeks, but was confined to bed for six months.

Because Moffatt works with VON, it was her former co-workers who were coming to her home to care for her wound.

As she recovered, she had to learn to walk again, and went through several months of physiotherapy.

While getting reports for insurance, she learned that her bowel was nicked during surgery to remove the ovary. She believes that is what led her to contract sepsis.

Although she returned to work, she can no longer do lifts and transfers, and can only work mornings.

“I come home from work and crash,” she said. “It’s frustrating because I was healthy until this happened.”

Carl Smith, of Truro, was moving a cabinet when it fell against his leg and cut him. He thought it was insignificant at the time, but he now believes it could have been the beginning of a life-altering condition.

“Shortly after that, he thought he had the flu,” said his wife, Brenda. “His legs felt so heavy, he was using his hands to lift them, and they were red and swollen.”

After four days, he went to hospital. He had cellulitis and sepsis, and was kept on intravenous antibiotics for 17 days.

Carl felt a little better, but after being home for four days he was having trouble breathing, and when he lay down he felt as if he were drowning.

His doctor sent him back to hospital, where they did an EKG, CT scan, bloodwork and an ultrasound on his lungs. He was given medication, which seemed to help for a while, but then the breathing problems returned. A decision was made to send him to Halifax by ambulance.

“When they took him downstairs to go in the ambulance, he couldn’t breathe and the EMTs took him to the ER,” said Brenda. “The ER doctors saved his life.”

Carl’s kidneys weren’t working and his lungs had filled with fluid. He had two blocked arteries and was in congestive heart failure.

He ended up having an aortic value replacement and a double bypass.

“Carl’s 56 and diabetic, but he used to be so energetic I called him the Energizer Bunny,” said Brenda. “This happened in 2016, and he still doesn’t have energy.

“We can’t be sure, but we think this was all because he got a cut on his leg that he didn't look after. You can get it through something as simple as a paper cut, so it’s very scary.”

Brenda Bayers has no idea what caused her to develop sepsis.

In January, the Musquodoboit Harbour woman woke up one morning with flu-like symptoms and a pain under her left arm. She called her workplace to let them know she wouldn’t be in, and during the day began to feel worse. By the time her husband got home from work, she was vomiting, and later in the evening began to feel disoriented.

“Through the night, I got to go to the bathroom and I was falling,” she said. “My husband took me to hospital (Dartmouth General) and they thought it might be a heart attack. My heart was racing and my lips were blue. They rushed me in for an EKG.”

Bayers was losing bladder and bowel control, and a lung collapsed, as medical professionals worked to save her.

She was sent to hospital in Halifax and diagnosed with myocarditis (inflammation of the heart). She was on oxygen and had allergic reactions to the first two antibiotics she was given.

“Things were a bit foggy for me,” she recalled. “I remember bits from that time, but I said things I don’t remember saying.”

She spent two weeks in ICU and then moved to the cardiac unit.

“I didn’t realize I had sepsis until I was out of ICU,” she said. “I had heard of it before, because my mother had it before she died.

“I found out they’d given me a 30 per cent chance of surviving at one point.”

She was off work for six months, but went back in June, and feels her energy levels are pretty close to normal now.

While Moffatt was recovering, she and a friend decided to form an online support group for sepsis survivors. It’s a Facebook group they call Sepsis survivors Canada – PSS support.

“We need to get the word sepsis out there, and let people know that, with sepsis, hours count,” she said. “I hadn’t heard of it before I got it.

“If we ca help save one life through this, it’s worth it.”

Truro emergency room doctor familiar with sepsis

As an emergency room physician, Dr. Jan Sommers regularly sees cases of sepsis.

“The key thing from an emergency medical standpoint is time,” she said. “If there’s sepsis, the clock is ticking to get the first dose of antibiotic in. It can happen very quickly.

sepsis
sepsis

“It’s important to be an advocate for your own health. If you’re concerned, state that concern to any health care provider who’s seeing you.”

She said people often don’t know when to seek urgent care.

“If you have an infection, along with a fever that doesn’t seem to be getting any better, shortness of breath, racing heartrate, confusion, extreme weakness, feelings of dizziness, are clammy or sweaty, have pain out of proportion, and a lack or urination you should be seen by a doctor.

“It’s not about how long the symptoms have been there; it’s about how severe they are.”

Sepsis can strike anyone, but those who are most susceptible are the very young, very old, those with a weakened immune system, those with wounds and those with invasive devices, such as intravenous catheters. Bacterial, viral and fungal infections can all lead to sepsis, which takes place when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body.

As sepsis worsens, blood flow to vital organs becomes impaired. Blood can form and cause organ failure and gangrene.

While people usually recover from mild sepsis, the mortality rate for septic shock is nearly 50 percent.

It is possible to reduce the risk of becoming septic.

“Try to stay in optimal health; get enough exercise and sleep,” said Sommers. “Use first aid for any break in the skin. Many things don’t need antibiotics.

“Make sure vaccines are up to date. Flu can lead to infection, so it’s a good idea to get a flu shot.”

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