Our bodies are remarkable when it comes to defending against illnesses and healing from injuries. Our immune system is like a vigilant army, ready to fend off invading pathogens and repair damaged tissues. Most of the time, it does an incredible job, and we recover from infections and injuries with relative ease.
However, sepsis is a unique and formidable adversary that can overwhelm even our most robust defenses. When sepsis strikes, the body’s immune response goes haywire, triggering widespread inflammation and organ dysfunction. This extreme reaction, while an attempt to fight the infection, can end up causing more harm than good. It’s a stark reminder that, despite our body’s incredible resilience, sepsis remains a formidable challenge in the realm of healthcare, underscoring the importance of early recognition and swift intervention in its management.
What is sepsis?
Think of sepsis (clinically known as septicemia) as the body’s over-the-top reaction to an infection. Normally, when you get sick from bacteria, viruses, or fungi, your immune system kicks into gear to fight off the invaders. It’s like your body’s way of launching a counterattack to protect you. Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening medical condition that occurs when the body’s response to an infection goes awry. It can lead to widespread inflammation, organ dysfunction, and, in severe cases, multiple organ failure.
Often, the stages of sepsis generally follow steps similar to these:
- Infection. Sepsis typically starts with an infection.
- Immune response. When your immune system detects the infection, it’s supposed to send out an army of white blood cells and release chemicals to help fight it. This is the body’s defense mechanism, and it’s usually a good thing.
- Sepsis takes a wrong turn. Here’s where things go haywire. With sepsis, the immune response gets confused or overwhelmed. Instead of containing the infection, the body goes into overdrive and launches a massive, systemic inflammatory response.
- Widespread inflammation. This widespread inflammation can lead to a whole host of problems that can affect your blood, blood vessels, and organs.
- Organ dysfunction. As the inflammation spreads and intensifies, it can cause organ dysfunction.
What causes sepsis?
Sepsis can happen to anyone, but it’s more common in people with weakened immune systems, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses.
Here are the most common causes of sepsis:
- Infections. Any infection, if left untreated or if it spreads rapidly, can potentially lead to sepsis. This includes infections of the respiratory system (like pneumonia), urinary tract infections, skin infections, and abdominal infections.
- Wounds and injuries. Even a simple wound, like a cut or a surgical incision, can become infected and lead to sepsis if not properly cared for.
- Medical procedures. Invasive medical procedures, such as the insertion of catheters or breathing tubes, can introduce bacteria into the body, increasing the risk of infection and sepsis.
- Compromised immune system. If your immune system is weakened due to conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer, or the use of immunosuppressive medications, you may be more susceptible to infections that can progress to sepsis.
- Chronic illnesses. Certain chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or kidney disease, can impair the body’s ability to fight off infections, making sepsis more likely.
- Age. The very young and the elderly are at a higher risk of developing sepsis due to their developing or weakened immune systems.
The key to preventing sepsis is to promptly treat infections, practice good hygiene, and seek medical attention if you suspect an infection is getting worse. It’s important to remember that sepsis can progress rapidly, so early recognition and treatment are crucial for a better chance of recovery.
Why is sepsis so dangerous?
While we have hinted at the dangers and risks of sepsis, let’s take a deeper look.
Complications from sepsis include:
- Blood vessel problems. In sepsis, the inflammation can affect the walls of blood vessels. This can make them leaky and cause blood pressure to drop. Low blood pressure means less oxygen and nutrients reach vital organs.
- Organ dysfunction. As sepsis progresses, the lack of blood flow and oxygen can lead to organ dysfunction. Your heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys may not work properly. This can result in difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeats, jaundice, and other serious symptoms.
- Coagulation problems. Sepsis can also mess with your blood’s ability to clot. This might seem contradictory to the increased risk of clotting seen in some severe COVID-19 cases, but in sepsis, the clotting process can become abnormal, leading to both excessive bleeding and clot formation.
- Septic shock. When sepsis becomes severe, it can progress to a condition called septic shock. This is a medical emergency. In septic shock, blood pressure drops significantly, and vital organs like the heart and brain don’t get enough oxygen. This can lead to unconsciousness and, ultimately, death. Symptoms include: extreme weakness, drowsiness, and significant changes in mental clarity, such as severe confusion.
- Tissue death. Fingers and toes may need amputation due to gangrene.
- Multi-organ failure. The worst-case scenario in sepsis is multi-organ failure. This happens when several organs stop working altogether. It’s like a domino effect – one organ’s failure can trigger the failure of others.
What are the long-term complications of sepsis?
While you may heal from the immediate danger of sepsis, the condition may have already caused enough damage to lead to long-term complications.
These life-long complications include:
- Post-Sepsis Syndrome (PSS). PSS is a collection of physical, cognitive, and psychological symptoms that persist after a person recovers from sepsis. These symptoms may include fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating. PSS can significantly affect a person’s quality of life and may persist for months or even years.
- Physical weakness. Survivors of sepsis often experience muscle weakness and loss of physical strength. This can be due to prolonged bed rest during treatment and the catabolic effects of sepsis on muscle tissue. Physical therapy and rehabilitation are typically needed to regain strength and mobility.
- Respiratory issues. Sepsis-related acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) can lead to long-term lung problems. Survivors may experience reduced lung function, shortness of breath, and an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections.
- Kidney dysfunction. Acute kidney injury (AKI) during sepsis can result in permanent kidney damage. Some survivors may develop chronic kidney disease (CKD), which requires ongoing medical management and potentially dialysis.
- Cardiovascular complication Sepsis can damage the heart, leading to long-term cardiovascular issues. Survivors may be at an increased risk of heart disease, including heart failure and irregular heart rhythms.
- Psychological effects. The traumatic experience of sepsis, including the need for intensive care and the risk of death, can lead to psychological complications. Many survivors develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges.
- Cognitive impairment. Sepsis survivors may experience cognitive impairment, often referred to as “brain fog.” This can manifest as difficulty with memory, concentration, and decision-making. Cognitive rehabilitation and therapy may be necessary to address these issues.
- Immunosuppression. Sepsis can weaken the immune system, making survivors more susceptible to infections in the long term. They may experience recurrent or severe infections even after their initial recovery.
- Neuromuscular complications. Some sepsis survivors develop neuromuscular problems, such as peripheral neuropathy. This condition can cause tingling, numbness, and weakness in the extremities and may take a long time to improve or may be permanent.
- Gastrointestinal issues. Sepsis-related gastrointestinal problems can persist, leading to digestive issues like diarrhea, abdominal pain, or altered bowel habits.
- Loss of independence. The physical and cognitive effects of sepsis can result in a loss of independence. Some survivors may require ongoing assistance with daily activities and personal care.
- Quality of life impact: Overall, the long-term complications of sepsis can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life. Survivors may struggle with physical limitations, emotional challenges, and a reduced ability to engage in activities they once enjoyed.
It’s important to note that the severity and duration of these complications can vary widely among sepsis survivors. Some individuals may experience only mild long-term effects, while others may face more significant challenges. Healthcare providers often work closely with sepsis survivors to develop individualized care plans to address their specific needs and improve their long-term outcomes.
Medical malpractice and sepsis in Mississippi
Medical malpractice refers to situations where healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, or hospitals, fail to provide a standard level of care, leading to patient harm.
Sepsis can be a consequence of medical malpractice in several ways:
- Delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis. One of the critical factors in successfully managing sepsis is early recognition and treatment. Failure to promptly diagnose sepsis or misdiagnosing it as another condition can lead to significant delays in providing necessary care. Medical professionals may overlook the signs and symptoms of sepsis, attributing them to less severe conditions, such as the flu or a simple infection.
- Inadequate infection control. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are expected to maintain strict infection control protocols to prevent healthcare-associated infections. Failure to adhere to these protocols, leading to hospital-acquired infections, can increase the risk of sepsis. These infections can be traced back to healthcare negligence.
- Surgical site infections. Patients who undergo surgeries are at risk of developing surgical site infections if proper sterile techniques are not followed. These infections can progress to sepsis if not promptly treated. Surgeons and healthcare providers are responsible for maintaining sterile conditions during surgery to prevent such complications.
- Prescription and medication errors. Incorrect doses of antibiotics or delays in administering them can contribute to sepsis. If healthcare professionals make medication errors, it can hinder the body’s ability to fight off the infection, potentially leading to sepsis.
- Staff negligence. Nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists and others in your medical team all play a crucial role in patient care, including monitoring vital signs and administering medications. Negligence in performing these duties can lead to delayed recognition of sepsis or improper management of septic patients.
- Failure to follow clinical guidelines. Medical associations and healthcare organizations often establish clinical guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of various conditions, including sepsis. Deviating from these established standards of care can constitute medical malpractice if it results in harm to the patient.
- Lack of informed consent. Before undergoing certain medical procedures, patients must provide informed consent, which includes understanding the potential risks and complications. Failure to adequately inform patients about the risks of infections and sepsis associated with a procedure can lead to legal claims.
The cost of treating sepsis and its long-term complications can place a significant financial burden on survivors and their families. This includes medical bills, rehabilitation expenses, and potential loss of income due to disability. That is why if you believe your sepsis was caused by neglect or error from your medical team, you need the help of an experienced medical malpractice attorney. You sought medical assistance from an expert in the field. Your trust was betrayed, and you do not deserve to have to pay for it. To schedule a free consultation with a Mississippi medical malpractice attorney from Merkel & Cocke, call us or fill out our contact page. We handle our clients with compassion and dedication. We have offices in Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville, and Oxford for your convenience.
After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School in 1975, Mr. Cocke and Mr. Merkel established Merkel & Cocke, P.A. in 1982. Since that time the emphasis of Mr. Cocke’s practice has progressed toward medical malpractice. At the present time his practice is exclusively devoted to handling medical negligence cases for the plaintiff, either as a result of direct contact by the client or on referral from other attorneys who are not familiar with the handling of medical negligence cases. Mr. Cocke was selected Best Lawyer of the year for 2012 and 2014 in The Memphis area in the field of Medical Malpractice and has been selected a Best Lawyer and Super Lawyer every year since 2006. Learn more about John Hartwell Cocke here.