After returning from a European vacation, Mike McKibben initially blamed jetlag for his muscle aches, extreme fatigue and other flu-like symptoms. The 61-year-old Lone Tree resident and his wife, Sue, had a great time in Austria, Switzerland and Germany and even took a cruise on the Rhine River to celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary and Mike’s recent retirement. The couple was looking forward to spending their golden years jet setting around the globe.
But on October 2, 2017, just days after his return to Colorado, a high fever and delirium sent Mike and his wife racing to Sky Ridge Medical Center. There, emergency department medical director Dr. Adam Barkin quickly suspected sepsis.
The third leading cause of death in the U.S., sepsis occurs when the body’s immune system becomes overwhelmed with infection. “The body responds by releasing a flood of chemicals to fight germs invading the body,” says Dr. Barkin. “Unfortunately, this response triggers a systemic inflammation that can affect blood flow and damage organs and limbs.”
Sepsis affects approximately 1.7 million Americans every year, claiming the lives of 270,000 people. Fast treatment is critical. “Within 30 minutes, the Sky Ridge emergency medical team initiated a sepsis alert protocol,” says Laura Wren, a registered nurse and sepsis coordinator at Sky Ridge. “Mike was given powerful intravenous (IV) antibiotics, as well as IV fluids to help improve blood flow. X-rays and blood and urine samples were taken to determine the cause of the sepsis.”
Within a matter of hours, Mike quickly declined and was showing signs of septic shock, the most severe and deadliest form of sepsis. As his heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas began to fail, the medical team started life-saving measures placing Mike on a ventilator and dialysis. He would remain on life support in the intensive care unit for 10 days. During this time, sepsis ravished his body.
Blood cultures showed that Mike had meningococcal bloodstream infection, a rare and dangerous condition caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. The bacteria spreads through respiratory secretions. An estimated 10 percent of people are carriers, meaning they have the bacteria in their noses and throats, yet never experience health problems. Doctors aren’t sure where Mike was exposed: during his overseas trip or in the U.S. Although Sue felt under-the-weather after their vacation, she never got as sick as her husband.
As the bacteria and toxins in Mike’s bloodstream rapidly multiplied, his health continued to deteriorate. “I was told to say my goodbyes on several different occasions,” says Sue. The septic shock caused another complication, a condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). “Patients with DIC develop a lot of blood clots and can ultimately experience bleeding when clotting factors are depleted,” says Dr. Barkin. The clots, along with high doses of certain necessary medications, further compromise blood flow to organs and extremities. Soon, Mike’s fingers, toes, nose and ears blackened, a sign of tissue death.
To give Mike the best chance at keeping as much of his digits and limbs as possible, Sky Ridge doctors transferred him to the burn intensive care division at Swedish Medical Center. Here, wound care experts provided therapies to minimize tissue damage. Unfortunately, Mike would still lose every finger except for his right thumb, all of his toes and the tip of his nose.
By the time Mike awoke six weeks later on November 12, he had lost 40 pounds and his muscles had weakened. He spent the next five months at a rehabilitation center rebuilding his strength and learning how to walk without toes that help you balance and how to dress and eat using hands that no longer had fingers.
One year later, Mike still participates in weekly rehabilitation services. Because his kidneys never recovered, he undergoes a four-hour hemodialysis process three times a week and recently was placed on the wait list for a kidney transplant. Throughout his ordeal, Mike has remained upbeat. “I can still do pretty much everything I did before I got sick. The fact that I’m still here and able to do these things is due to the fast actions taken at Sky Ridge,” he says. “I’m thankful to be here and look forward to getting even stronger so I can go on more trips with my wife.”
Time is of the essence if you suspect sepsis.
For every hour of delayed treatment, the risk of death increases by 8 percent. Watch for these symptoms and call 911 or head to the nearest emergency department.
- Temperature: Anything above 100.4 degrees is considered a fever. However, some people with sepsis experience a drop in temperature below 96.8 degrees.
- Infection: Warning signs include fever, fatigue, muscle aches and neck pain.
- Mental decline: The person may seem confused, delirious or sleepy.
- Extremely ill: The person may feel like he’s going to die or have severe pain or discomfort. Mike says he felt poisoned.
Lower Your Risk of Sepsis
Certain populations are more at risk for sepsis, including infants and children, adults over 65 and people with impaired immune systems or medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Sky Ridge Medical Center sepsis coordinator, Laura Wren, R.N., recommends these steps to lower risk:
Get vaccinated: Vaccines offer protection against meningococcal disease. CDC recommendations include:
- Preteens: Meningococcal conjugate vaccine given between ages 11 and 12, with a booster at age 16.
- Teens: Serogroup B meningococcal vaccine given between ages 16 and 18.
- Adults: Meningococcal conjugate vaccine and serogroup B meningococcal vaccine if you have a damaged or missing spleen, are traveling to a country where the disease is common or have other risk factors.
Fend off respiratory infections: Infants, children and the elderly who get influenza or pneumonia have a higher risk of sepsis. These vaccines can help:
- Flu vaccine: This vaccine is recommended for children ages 6 months and older. Because the immune system weakens with age, a higher-dose flu shot is available for adults over the age of 65.
- Pneumonia vaccine: The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended for all children younger than 2 years old and all adults ages 65 and older. The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine is recommended for all adults ages 65 and older, as well as people ages 2 to 64 with certain medical conditions or adults ages 19 to 64 who smoke.
- Prevent infections: Thoroughly wash all wounds with soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a bandage. Watch for signs of infection, such as redness, yellowish discharge, pain and swelling.
- Practice good hand hygiene: Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after using the toilet and before eating or preparing food. Sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow (not hands!) and use hand sanitizer when you’re on the go.
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