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Sepsis/Toxic Shock—the Mystery Killer

Cause of 25 Percent of US Hospital Deaths

Yet Few Ever Heard of It

When facts are personalized they becomes easier to grasp. That was the hope of the late September global conference held at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research on the killer of 200,000 Americans annually. Victims of sepsis/toxic shock were gathered to relate their harrowing stories of survival in front of 150 scientists, physicians and other leaders from 18 countries, in order to raise public awareness about the medical condition. And featured was the story of a 31-year-old Manhasset woman who survived a very serious case of sepsis/toxic shock.

What is Sepsis? It is a toxic and life-threatening medical condition caused by the body’s overblown response to infection or injury. If not detected early and treated, sepsis can lead to organ failure, shock and death. It is the cause of 25 percent of US hospital deaths—that’s one in four.

Sepsis remains the primary cause of death from infection despite advances in modern medicine, including vaccines, antibiotics and acute care. Research has shown that healthcare spending on sepsis has increased by $1.7 billion per year, with no discernible improvement in mortality.

Jackie Wang is among the half-million Americans every year who develop sepsis or septic shock and she is one of the lucky ones. She survived.

An active, healthy, financial professional who works in Manhattan, Ms. Wang returned from a trip abroad and attributed her fatigue to jet lag. She got through her work week, but had flu-like symptoms and developed a fever. By the time she arrived at North Shore University Hospital, her lungs were filled with fluid and about to collapse.  She was diagnosed with sepsis and put into a medically-induced coma for 10 days so her body could fight the infection. She was hospitalized for three weeks and needed another week of inpatient rehab.

“The lack of awareness and understanding is one of the major challenges we face in healthcare today,” said Kevin J. Tracey, MD, president of the Feinstein Institute and a pioneer in sepsis research. The Feinstein Institute in Manhasset is recognized as a leader in sepsis research, receiving more than $20 million a year in sepsis-related research grants.

“One in four hospital deaths are caused by sepsis,” Tracey said, “yet the majority of Americans have never even heard of the condition. Sepsis is a mystery to most Americans.”

“I was very surprised when they told me I had sepsis. I never even heard of it,” Ms. Wang said, adding, “This could happen to anyone.”

Jackie Wang grew up in Queens and moved to Manhasset with her husband about five years ago. In large part, she said, because of the reputation of the schools. She passes Munsey Park School everyday and said she even loves the look of the school. Wang is still quite surprised and amazed by what happened to her.

“It is not known how you get sepsis but it often piggybacks on something more commonly diagnosed—in my case pneumonia.”  Dr. Tracy, she recalled, said that after any surgery, if you get sepsis, it causes further decline.

According to the fact sheet distributed by North Shore LIJ “The typical features of infection are weakness, loss of appetite, fever and chills.

The signs of sepsis are those of worsening organ function such as difficulty or rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, and confusion. Patients are at 10 times greater risk of death from sepsis after surgery than from a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. One out of three patients who develop septic shock after surgery will die within 30 days.”

Wang believes her story was selected to be included in the international symposium because there are so few sepsis survivors who escape without lasting problems—other survivors, she said, are saddled with an oxygen tank for their remaining years or have lost limbs, even confined to a bed for the rest of their lives.

Her successful battle against the disease, she believes, is a result of her medical team. “They are so knowledgeable and early diagnosis and subsequently early treatment was key for my survival. I am a walking reminder of how important early treatment is.” The pulmonologist who helped diagnose and treat her was Mark Rosen, MD, chief, Pulmonary Medicine, North Shore-LIJ.

To combat sepsis in North Shore-LIJ’s 15 hospitals throughout the New York area, Dr. Tracey has teamed with Kenneth Abrams, MD, the health system’s senior vice president of clinical operations, who has initiated a program that trains caregivers to look for early indicators of sepsis among patients, and at the first sign of trouble, treat them early and aggressively.

Jackie Wang said she was “so happy to be part of the Feinstein Institute when I spoke at the recent symposium. I believe hearing about the disease from both the patient and the medical staff is a great way for the larger community to become aware of the disease.”