A woman has issued a warning over the rapid onset of sepsis after she was left in an intensive care unit with an illness so severe, she had to learn to walk again.
Suzanne Graham, 45, was suffering from what she suspected was a bad cold in the run-up to Christmas 2019.
She was struggling to breathe and talk, so she made an appointment with her GP.
Suzanne hoped for a quick recovery just in time for the festive season, but her symptoms rapidly deteriorated. She was taken to intensive care and put on a ventilator.
She was diagnosed with severe pneumonia, sepsis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome that left her with just 10-20% of normal lung function.
Suzanne, from Glasgow, spent 10 days in intensive care, so long that her muscles began to waste away.
She couldn’t stand and had to learn to walk again with the help of three physiotherapists.
After extensive therapy and training that helped her adjust to life on crutches, Suzanne was finally able to return home following the ordeal.
Recalling her traumatic illness, she said: ‘I was busy and there was a lot happening.
‘I had a cold that I didn’t think too much about, but it just lingered.
‘When it got closer to Christmas, I started to get more unwell, but I thought the cold had just developed into a flu.
‘Looking back, I had no idea how unwell I really was.’
Symptoms of sepsis
- A high temperature, fever or low temperature
- Chills and shivering
- A fast heartbeat
- Fast breathing
Severe sepsis or septic shock
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Change in mental state such as confusion or disorientation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slurred speech
- Severe muscle pain
- Severe breathlessness
- Less urine than normal – or even none at all for one day
- Cold, clammy, pale or mottled skin
- Loss of consciousness
What is sepsis?
What is sepsis? Sepsis is a life-threatening reaction to an infection. It happens when your immune system overreacts to an infection and starts to damage your body’s own tissues and organs. You cannot catch sepsis from another person. Sepsis is sometimes called septicaemia or blood poisoning.
One night when she was unable to sleep, Suzanne recalled a friend of her age who had recently recovered from pneumonia.
‘I thought that was unusual, because I’d always associated pneumonia with older people, so I looked up the symptoms of pneumonia and the flu, and quickly found that my symptoms were all pointing towards pneumonia.’
Suzanne arranged an emergency appointment with her GP but her condition had worsened to the point where she was unable to stand for any length of time.
She said her husband drove her to the GP despite the surgery being just 50 metres from their house.
There a doctor measured Suzanne’s blood oxygen and listened to her lungs.
‘I just remember her saying to me, “I don’t want to alarm you, but we will be calling an ambulance – you have to go to hospital”.’
‘I remember getting into the ambulance, but I have no memories from then on, so this is all from what I’ve been told by family members.’
Upon arriving at intensive care, Suzanne was attached to a ventilator – but her condition quickly deteriorated.
‘I was in need of oxygen. They said the situation had spiralled out of control, and the oxygen that I was getting from the ventilator wasn’t going to be enough to keep me alive,’ she said.
Doctors said the only treatment available to her was ECMO, a specialised temporary life support system only delivered in certain parts of the UK.
ECMO, or Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation, is a treatment used in extreme cases where a patient’s lungs or heart are not functioning at a normal level.
The machine uses an artificial lung to oxygenate the blood outside of the body.
Luckily, Suzanne was eligible for the treatment – but the closest machine was 145 miles away, in Aberdeen.
A team of five medical staff drove through the night with a portable ECMO machine, which Suzanne was immediately hooked up to on arrival.
‘Normally, they would hook you up to an ECMO machine in a theatre, but I was so unwell that they couldn’t move me at all. Then they took me and drove me through the night to Aberdeen in an ambulance.
‘Essentially, the pneumonia had become severe. I had 10-20% of lung function, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and sepsis.
‘It was getting into a multi-organ failure type situation – my lungs and kidneys were failing.’
Suzanne was in Aberdeen for seven days, where she continued to receive ECMO treatment. Luckily, she responded well, and was able to be transferred back to Glasgow to continue her treatment.
She was still in intensive care, but no longer needed a ventilator to breathe, and doctors were able to take Suzanne out of the heavily medicated state she had been in throughout her ordeal.
‘This is when I start to have memories of being there,’ she said.
‘I was massively confused about what had happened, because of a mix of what my body went through, and the drugs that I was given. I had quite severe hallucinations.
‘I didn’t know they were hallucinations at the time – I thought everything was just very strange.’
Now fully conscious, Suzanne was moved to a high dependency unit for the next week, where her recovery began.
‘I was bedbound. I was in hospital for three weeks, and it’s amazing just how quickly you lose your muscle mass.
‘I think they call it ‘intensive care syndrome’ – because you’re just lying there, you lose your muscles. My muscles had just wasted away in that time.’
Unable to sit up in bed, never mind stand, three physiotherapists had to help her stand for the first time, as she was no longer able to support her own body weight.
After extensive work with physiotherapists, Suzanne was finally able to return home.
Hospital staff told her that recovery could take a year, based on the severity of her illness and the time spent in intensive care.
‘Mentally, it’s been a lot. It’s a known thing for people in intensive care to experience hallucinations – people can struggle with making sense of that,’ said Suzanne.
‘Mine were so real, and I was convinced they were. It took me a while to accept that they weren’t. That throws a lot of things into confusion – was this memory real, was it another hallucination?
‘My brain also felt really slow and I was worried about returning to work. What if I couldn’t remember how to do my job?
‘Physically, the main recovery was centered around building up my fitness. I’d lost a lot of weight and muscle mass, so I was building up fitness.
‘I’m so grateful to the doctors and hospital staff, they were amazing. My family were there by my side the whole time and supported me through.
‘I’ve been extremely lucky to survive it intact – sepsis can cause loss of limbs and have other physical effects. I’m very lucky to have made a complete recovery.’
Now five years on and fully recovered, Suzanne has become passionate about sharing her story to raise awareness of the symptoms and dangers of sepsis – a medical emergency which kills around 50,000 people per year in the UK.
According to charity Sepsis Research FEAT, symptoms to look out for include very high or low temperature, confusion, shaking, blotchy skin and a difficulty urinating – combinations of these symptoms or rapidly worsening symptoms, are a reason to seek urgent medical attention.
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