IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Went into Septic Shock from a Mystery Infection

Everyone had to wear hazmat suits and gloves to enter the room because they didn't know the degree of my contagion.
Publish date:
June 21, 2016
illness, hospitals, support, infections

I know I'm not alone in the terrifying fear of incapacitating illness. If something happened to me, would there be a strong enough safety net for my children and family? What happens to a one-woman business when that woman disappears? A few days off from the gym for bronchitis has felt like agony — what would happen if I were really laid out?

I suppose sometimes you have to live your greatest fear to be assured the world will not completely end.

One Monday in May, I felt uncontrollable chills and just could not get warm. It was 67 degrees outside. Hours later, I was vomiting and writhing in a feverish haze. I assumed I had norovirus. But days later, my fever still hadn't broken and I knew something was terribly wrong.

I headed to the ER, but they discharged me, saying it was a simple case of stomach flu and there's nothing they could do. The next day, my fever wouldn't drop below 103. My sister-in-law, a nurse at another hospital, offered to bring me in with her so I will be properly tended to.

Just before she arrived, I projectile-vomited across the room.

At the hospital, I didn't think I'd make the walk to the triage. A half-dozen nurses surrounded me and said that my blood pressure was scary-low — that I was in septic shock.

I knew of only two people who have had sepsis: an old friend who'd had AIDS and died shortly after, and Tony Soprano after a gunshot wound.

An IV in my groin pumped me with medication to try to raise my extremely weak blood pressure. I also got IVs of fluid, every antibiotic known to man, and a catheter, which, under morphine, I told the nurses I was psyched about. I continually asked if I was going to die, but I didn't see Jesus, a white light, or Prince. I just passed out in the ICU, where I spent the next four days with a tube up my ass.

My stomach distended more by the day, and I looked nine months pregnant. All bacterial cultures came back negative. The MRI showed swelling of my colon and not much more. The doctors didn't know exactly what was wrong with me, let alone how it happened. Everyone had to wear blue plastic hazmat suits and gloves to enter the room because they didn't know the degree of my contagion. It was like a scene from the movie Outbreak.

Days later, I was approved to move to a normal room and desperate to shower. Of course, I could barely walk and I showered in a chair. I could only eat a couple bites of food. It was like I'd had a gastric bypass but gained 20 pounds.

I spent another three days in various levels of pain, discomfort, and fear that there are no straight answers. I walked 30 feet, and it was a triumph. I hadn't seen my children in 10 days. But I was comforted by the amazing outreach of support — friends and family helping with the children so my husband could be at the hospital and people sending flowers and meals and just generally showing true compassion and concern.

After a week, I finally went home and tried to wash the scent of hospital soap off me. I was still massively bloated and in some pain, but I was able to eat a bit and finally get a good night's sleep without being prodded with needles and beeping IVs all night long.

The exhaustion and fatigue stayed with me for weeks but lessened each day. I regained my appetite and lost the giant belly — along with 15 pounds of muscle and boob. (Why just muscle and boob? Why?) I walked more every day, though just a few blocks leads to hours of sleeping.

In the first couple weeks, I was terrified of a relapse. Since we didn't know what caused this, I'm scared of getting reinfected. What if it was some weird cheese I ate and I eat that cheese again? I had post-traumatic stress disorder — not uncommon for anyone who has spent time in the ICU. I tried to stop myself from Googling "sepsis recovery," which leads mainly to grim tales of chronic ailments and lifelong debilitations.

This can't be me.

Fortunately, every day, I got stronger, stayed awake longer. I folded laundry and painted my toenails. I answered emails and read books to my kids. Soon, I was at the gym sitting down on the rower. I went at a snail's pace and barely felt like I was moving. But I was. Slow and steady. I'd get there eventually.

Not every situation needs a bright side, but I'm honestly able to find the silver lining. I have learned some hard-earned lessons. As much as we might think we understand compassion and empathy, experiencing trauma will redefine the way you respond to another's tragedy. I was as guilty as anyone as sending the, "Let me know if there's anything I can do" bullshit text. You just do it.

Take the kids for the day. Start the "meal train" and bring the chicken soup. Show up and start unloading the dishwasher. Bring copies of People to the hospital. I know this now.

I also learned that I was not, as I feared, alone on an island with my husband and children. The outreach from friends around the world was simply amazing: the meals, the flowers, the gift cards, the offers of help with our kids — just a genuine outpouring of love and concern. Despite how scared I was, I felt safe in a way I never truly had before.

The family I have built over my 37 years on earth far exceeds what I was born into. From my childhood friends to my college roommates to work associates and new-parent friends, my safety net was strong, sturdy, and unbreakable. I was never alone. I was more loved than I imagined.

I know I will get strong again — mentally, physically, and emotionally. I will count my blessings and try to be a better friend and caregiver to people who might seem strong but are silently struggling.

One month later, my recovery is remarkable. I go for a 1.5-mile run and it's only about a minute slower than usual. I still require daily naps and feel general fatigue off and on throughout the day, but I no longer have a paralyzing fear of relapse.

I may never know exactly what caused this beast of an infection. However, I can finally say with confidence that I will be OK.