The Faces of Sepsis
Judy Otteson - survivorOn November 14, 2004, I was nipped in the right hand by a small, healthy, mixed-breed dog. It was a tiny bite – little more than a cut, really – at the base of my right thumb. It bled freely, and after a good rinse and a Band-Aid, I went home for the night. I felt fine, but watched for the proverbial ”red streaks” that I’d heard (since I was a kid) signified blood poisoning.
Thursday passed without incident, but I was a little bit queasy on Friday and that night, at a restaurant in a neighboring town, I noticed that the palm of my hand had turned a bluish-gray, like a bruise. By Saturday morning I’d developed a raging headache and some nausea, and friends drove me to their small hospital’s ER to be checked out. My blood refused to clot after a simple draw, and within minutes I was babbling nonsense. Exactly 72 hours after the bite, I was admitted to that hospital, already (and unknowingly) in septic shock.
I couldn’t breathe and still remember the intubation tubing at my mouth, with someone saying to “open wide and take a deep breath.” My lungs had begun to “harden” and my body was starving for oxygen. An ambulance brought me to a larger hospital, where I was admitted to their ICU and given a 5% chance of survival.
DIC – Disseminated Intravascular Coagulopathy. It’s a clotting disorder, preventing oxygen from getting where it’s needed, and I developed black, plate-sized blisters over 40% of my body surface. While caregivers fought the devastating blood infection, my renal system shut down and in went the catheters, front and back. My heart stopped twice, and my right hand shriveled and turned black. The blisters broke, leaving huge, gaping, oozing wounds. My toes began to rot, and my legs turned black. Physical therapists turned my bed and bent my knees while I screamed. Heavy sedation (an induced coma) was interrupted by doctors and nurses saying things like “Move your right foot,” and asking if I were in pain at the moment. The breathing tube came out, went in, came out, went in, again. I tried to eat and vomited, and in went a feeding tube.
Delirium replaced reality. In one sequence I was sure I’d explode from being force-fed live aquarium fish and was sure that the beeping behind my head came from a CNN video camera broadcasting my demise. In another, I had frozen my feet during a cattle drive across northern Canada’s frozen tundra; and in yet another “dream,” I was dying from lack of water.
One night, 18 days after the bite, an out-of-state friend walked into the room and quietly said, “Hey, J.O., I came to say goodbye.” A nurse removed the ventilator for a moment, and I managed to croak out, “Where ya going’? You just got here,” followed by, “Is there any orange ice cream?” He fed me orange sherbet and I wept as it soothed my dry and hardened throat. Nothing before or since has ever tasted or felt as good. Apparently I’d turned a corner, and I recall nurses cheering and clapping.
On day 20, paramedics bundled me up for a medevac flight to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where I spent two months in and out of surgery and moving from Burn ICU to the regular burn floor, then back to ICU. Four fingers were amputated from my right hand, as were the front halves of both feet. Wound care continued twice daily and eventually all the skin and tissue, along with some muscle, was carved off my legs from ankles to thighs, replaced with strips of “good” skin harvested from my back – the pain from which was almost unbearable. Do you know that pain can be so severe that it’s impossible to make a sound? You pray to faint, or to die, and neither happens. You survive, knowing that it will end.