Each year about 750,000 Americans develop sepsis because of an infection, and nearly a third will die from the blood illness.
Those with decreased immune systems stand the greatest chance for getting sepsis, but even the healthy are at risk.
Jackie Richard lost her limbs after a near-fatal bout with sepsis. Today she has prosthetic arms and legs. While that took some adjustment, Richard still recognizes she "always had a blessed life."
"I went to dinner with my friend, had some sushi, went to her house, played with her nieces and nephews on the trampoline jumping up and down," Richard recalled. "And that was the last day I felt normal."
Two days later, Richard found herself in the emergency room.
"Two student nurses asked me how I was feeling. I told them about the pain in my stomach and after that, I blacked out," she said.
Septic shock put Richard into a coma for two weeks. Her vital functions shut down, stopping circulation into her hands and feet. Gangrene set-in, requiring the amputations.
"I'd never heard of sepsis before so I had no idea what that meant when I woke up," she said.
She's not alone. Nearly three-fourths of Americans are also unaware.
Wash those Hands!
Sepsis is the body's negative reaction to an infection. Half of all cases stem from fairly regular infections, such as pneumonia or those in the urinary tract. The other half come from infections contracted in the hospital, like staph.
The best defense against developing sepsis is to wash your hands often.
Also, avoid people with infections and strengthen your immune system by getting lots of rest, eating fresh fruits and vegetable, and keeping stress down.
Preventing hospital infections is another matter.
Sentara Bayside Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., is rated by Consumer Reports as one of the nation's very best at preventing patient infection. Their extensive checklist even stops doctors from wearing neckties because most ties are never washed.
Bayside's low infection rate also translates into high patient satisfaction.
"I'm a germaphobe myself so I felt right at home," patient Cathy Porter said before pointing out her own personal stash of hand sanitizer.
Clean Medical Devices
Bayside pays particular attention to one of the main causes of hospital infections -- medical devices inserted into patients.
"We would consider anything that's attached to the patient as an extension of the patient, such as a ventilator or IV tube," explained Bayside Dr. Nadeem Inayet. "So even if you're manipulating that, and not the patient's body, you're supposed to wear gloves."
In addition to cleanliness, the devices must be removed as soon as possible.
"We try to get patients off the ventilator as soon as we can and that goes for all devices," Inayet added.
"We would round each and every day, look at all the devices they have, and would document if they need it or not need it," she explained. "We look at the duration of it."
Don't Be Afraid to Ask
Although hospital staff is largely responsible for keeping patients healthy, there are things patients can do to protect themselves.
Dr. Gene Burke oversees Sentara's 10 hospitals.
"Every patient should feel totally empowered to say to everyone who walks in the room, 'Have you washed your hands? Would you mind doing it now?" he said. "Because doctors hands aren't going to fall off for washing them too often."
He added that patients can go even further in monitoring their care.
"Talk to your care team and tell them... to help them know that you expect them to have the fewest number of things put into you that's necessary," Burke said.
"And that you would like them every single day, if you have a catheter or IV in, to answer the question, 'Is it still necessary today?'" he continued. "Every single day, ask and answer that question."
When infections do occur and develop into sepsis, the treatment is immediate antibiotics and fluids. Every hour without antibiotics, the chance of a patients survival drops 8 percent.
By the time Richard was treated, her chance for survival had dropped to just 15 percent -- but she still has her life.
"I take every day as it comes," she said. "And I'm thankful for every day that I get."
--Originally published Dec. 8, 2010.