Sepsis: Deadly Risk to the Elderly
Sepsis is the medical term given to the body’s extreme reaction to infection. Sepsis is always life-threatening and can progress to septic shock and death if it is not successfully treated. While sepsis can happen to anyone, the elderly, especially patients in nursing homes, are some of the most likely persons to suffer the deadly complications of sepsis.
But sepsis is not inevitable; it often arises from substandard, negligent care. If your elderly loved one resides in a nursing home or other care facility, it is in their best interests for you to familiarize yourself with the signs, stages, and complications of sepsis.
What is Sepsis?
Sepsis arises from infections that are not or cannot be checked or cured. It is the body’s exaggerated inflammatory response to severe infection. Certain chemicals the body releases create the crisis, because these chemicals can damage the body to the point of shutting it down, causing death. However, if there is no infection, there is no chance of sepsis. Staph, strep, and E. coli are the most likely bacteria to trigger a septic reaction.
The Stages of Sepsis
Sepsis actually can have as many as three stages, with the last stage frequently resulting in death:
- Sepsis is the name for the initial stage, where the localized infection spreads through the body via the bloodstream, causing widespread inflammation. (An older term for sepsis is “blood poisoning.”) Sepsis can cause a fever that is abnormally high or low, an accelerated heartbeat, and accelerated respiration.
- The second stage is known as severe sepsis, which affects vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, and brain. With severe sepsis, the patient has difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, decreased urine, heart problems, and an impaired mental state.
- The third stage is known as septic shock. Septic shock is marked by an extreme drop in blood pressure. If a patient has progressed to the septic shock stage, often there is little that can be done because of the difficulty of raising the patient’s blood pressure. In intensive care units (ICUs) across the U.S., the most common reason for death is septic shock.
How is Sepsis Treated?
Infections are treated with antibiotics. But when the patient does not improve, “broad-spectrum” antibiotics are generally administered via intravenous line (IV). This class of antibiotics drugs can produce severe side effects and be hard on an elderly patient in a weakened state.
When sepsis sets in, strong antibiotics are not enough. Fluids of various types, including saline solution, are also given through IV to keep blood pressure sufficiently high. Those in various stages of sepsis can also require vasopressor drugs to raise blood pressure. The nature of these drugs can, unfortunately, cause extremities to become gangrenous, thus requiring amputations to help the patient survive.
Other treatment options include corticosteroids and mechanical assistance should kidneys become damaged, which is a common side effect of sepsis, requiring dialysis treatment. If the patient should live, sometimes permanently compromised kidneys result.
Risk Factors for Developing Sepsis
The elderly are at special risk because they often have compromised immune systems. The elderly, especially those with breathing tubes, catheters, IV lines, and open wounds such as surgical incisions and bedsores are most vulnerable.
Those who are already ill and then suffer a wound or a burn are also at increased risk, as is anyone who has an undiagnosed infection. Pneumonia, urinary tract infections (UTIs), gut infections, and skin infections are frequently linked to sepsis. The elderly are especially at risk for lung infections such as pneumonia and for urinary tract infections.
“The Brutality of Sepsis”
Sepsis is devastating for the patient and often has harsh outcomes, such as the amputations mentioned previously because of vasopressors. One family, whose mother and grandmother died at 84 of septic shock, told their story online, calling her death “brutal … for such a beautiful person.” After a routine surgery to remove a blood clot from the woman’s femoral artery, infection set in, followed by sepsis. Harsh treatments were attempted, but by the time she died, bacteria had eaten away her lower left torso, groin, and thigh.
The family characterized sepsis as something most persons know little about and cautioned against possible nursing home neglect. They advised people to become advocates for their loved ones, asking questions and demanding answers.
What Should I Do If I Suspect Sepsis?
It’s important that you monitor your loved one for signs of infection, especially after any medical procedure or when they have an open wound such as a bedsore. Common symptoms of infections include fever, chills, pain, shortness of breath, clammy skin, and mental confusion. It is critical that treatment for an infection be started immediately for any patient, but especially for one who is elderly or has a compromised immune system. Doctors should test the patient to determine which antibiotic would be the most effective. If you don’t see evidence of improvement and believe the infection has progressed to sepsis, raise the question yourself so that appropriate treatment can begin without delay. Aging increases the possibility that sepsis can develop rapidly, progressing quickly to the final stage, septic shock.
The Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS OIG) reviewed data in 2013 that indicated sepsis was the most common reason for nursing home residents to be moved to the hospital. Sepsis is often preventable and is not inevitable. Sepsis care costs Medicare billions of dollars each year for hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions.
It Can Be Negligence
Sometimes sepsis occurs because of negligent medical care. One notable case was filed in 2017 by a family against a nursing home facility in Prince George’s County. The resident in question died from sepsis that was caused by an undiagnosed urinary tract infection. It is alleged that the nursing home should have suspected the UTI and treated it in a more timely fashion, as it led directly to the woman’s sepsis and eventual death.
Determining medical negligence can be a complex and confusing procedure which involves extensive review of medical records, interviews with expert witnesses to help establish the standard of care for your practitioner’s practice area and community, and medical examinations to determine the extent of injury. If your elderly loved one suffered harm or death due to sepsis that took place in a nursing home, skilled and caring legal counsel can assist you in sorting out the way forward.
Let Down by Modern Medicine? Let “The Injury Lawyer” Help You.
An experienced medical malpractice attorney such as Maryland attorney Steven H. Heisler will be able to listen to the facts of your case, conduct a thorough investigation, and help you devise a legal strategy for obtaining compensation for your injuries. Due to the involvement of insurance companies and defendants who can afford a strong legal team, it’s a good idea to call on an attorney who has extensive experience when it comes to the determination of negligence, which must be established for medical malpractice. Not every medical malpractice claim will hold up in court. However, the only way to determine this is through a thorough case review.
If you or a loved one has suffered from sepsis and its aftermath, and you believe medical negligence is involved, contact the law offices of The Injury Lawyer, Steven H. Heisler, today for a free initial consultation regarding whether you have a case at 1-877-228-HURT (1-877-228-4878). If you prefer, use our online contact form.