What I Wish Hospitals Knew When I Lost My Son to Sepsis

What I Wish Hospitals Knew When I Lost My Son to Sepsis

A tragic loss propels a mom to a medical career and a journey to conquer sepsis.

For 23 years, I have been a nurse in the emergency department at Children’s of Alabama. But before I became a nurse, I was a mom. When my first son, Justin, turned 7 years old, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease in which cancer cells form in the lymph system. The cancer and chemotherapy treatments made his little body more susceptible to viruses and infections, and he would be in and out of the hospital for different reasons, including fever. One summer day, Justin’s fever was different.

When we arrived at the hospital, things took a turn, and what seemed like a small fever escalated quickly. Justin passed away, and we didn’t know how or why. It was devastating. 

Later, I discovered the cause of death was sepsis. Twenty-five years ago, we did not know much about sepsis and did not have the precautions we do now. After losing Justin, I decided to pursue a career in nursing and make a difference for children like Justin by helping reduce sepsis deaths. Now, I work in the same department that treated my child all those years ago. 

Since Justin’s passing, we’ve made significant strides in recognizing and treating sepsis. As technology and research have continued to evolve, the mystery of sepsis has slowly been revealed, and treatment pathways have improved through the development of evidence-based bundles, or protocols. 

For the past eight years, I’ve been part of a collaborative of 66 children’s hospitals called Improving Pediatric Sepsis Outcomes (IPSO). We met once a month to discuss goals and improvements, learn from what others were doing, and make changes to protocols. We all have a shared passion and reverence for continuing to improve sepsis outcomes. IPSO members have contributed to the largest pool of clinical pediatric sepsis data in the U.S. The results have been remarkable: A recent study demonstrated that compliance to IPSO’s bundle of care reduced sepsis mortality by nearly half. 

Children’s of Alabama is also using a new device called a handheld rapid infuser to improve sepsis care. We added it to our sepsis bundle and included it in all crash carts hospital wide. This device is essential to meeting our fluid resuscitation goals and reducing hospital-acquired infections. With this infuser, you can immediately see a change in a patient's vital signs and behavior — their heart rate decreases, their respiratory rate returns to normal, and they become more alert and oriented.  

I take pride in knowing I have been a part of improving outcomes for sepsis patients. If the IPSO bundle tools had been around for my son, his sepsis may have been prevented. Now, we’re better equipped to reduce mortality rates for other children. We'll continue to collaborate with pediatric hospital communities to hone our treatment of sepsis through shared learning and a community of practice. My goal is for every mother to leave the hospital with her child because we caught sepsis early and gave them the best available care.  

Written By:
Judy Fuller, BSN, RN
Emergency Room Nurse, Children's of Alabama

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