In November 2012, 17-year-old Nathan came home from school and told his parents he wasn’t feeling well. He was still recovering from a virus he had the week before that caused him to miss four days of school. With a history of respiratory infections, Nathan’s mother, Sherry, was vigilant about monitoring his symptoms. She called the pediatrician who said that Nathan should come in in the morning if he wasn’t feeling better.
Nathan was treated for sepsis at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
By 4 a.m., Nathan was struggling to breathe and experiencing severe pain in his back and chest. His parents rushed him to the nearest emergency room, and they transported him to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in an ambulance. Sherry was terrified—she didn’t know what was wrong with her son. But with at least 10 doctors and nurses taking care of Nathan at once, she knew they were doing everything they could.
That first day, the family had a meeting with the lead physician. They had just met, but he gave them hugs at the end of the meeting, giving a small measure of comfort to Sherry and her husband. Nathan’s white blood cell count was through the roof. While doctors waited for the cultures to grow, Nathan was intubated and put on a ventilator. Sherry recalled, "I’ve never seen so many machines and tubes coming out of a person."
Each morning, when the doctors and nurses conducted their rounds, they would invite Sherry to join the discussion about Nathan’s care. Being part of the daily rounds, Sherry said, made a huge difference. "Being right there, as a part of the conversation, made it easier to understand. Not once did we feel like we were in the way. They never asked us to leave the room, and we were included in decision-making. It gave me a sense of control."
Then, Nathan was diagnosed with sepsis. The doctors told Sherry he had an infection running through his blood system that could shut down his organs. "I had heard the word, but had no clue what sepsis was,” Sherry said. “I asked the doctors if he could die, and they told me it was a possibility."
But after three and a half days in the ICU, Nathan began to recover and was transferred to another unit. He was diagnosed with double pneumonia in both lungs, but went home after a week in the hospital.
Sherry wasn’t aware that lung infections are one of the top four infections most often associated with sepsis, or that children with compromised immune systems are more susceptible. Since she wasn’t familiar with sepsis, she didn’t know the signs or to ask the doctors if that’s what he might have had.
"He just went downhill," Sherry said. "We were surprised at how fast it happened. If I had taken him to the emergency room even a few hours earlier, things might not have been as severe."
Four years later, Nathan is healthy. His family takes preventive measures if he experiences respiratory symptoms, and they know to trust their instincts.
Pediatric experts estimate that about 55 percent of patients develop sepsis before they get to the hospital. Even for pediatric clinicians, it can be difficult to recognize in children, as symptoms vary and awareness of the condition is low.
Sherry is grateful for the care Nathan received at Nationwide Children’s. "We’re lucky Nathan was taken to Children’s, otherwise I don’t think he would have survived."
Sepsis is a leading cause of death in hospitalized children, killing almost 5,000 children annually in the U.S.
Sharing these sepsis patient stories is part of the Improving Pediatric Sepsis Outcomes collaborative, a multi-year quality initiative to significantly reduce sepsis-related mortality and morbidity across children’s hospitals.