Sepsis is a leading cause of death in America, but not many people know about it.

By Faith Brar
May 25, 2017
Hillary Spangler

Hillary Spangler was in sixth grade when she came down with the flu that nearly took her life. With a high fever and body aches for two weeks, she was in and out of the doctor's office, but nothing made her feel better. It wasn't until Spangler's dad noticed a rash on her arm that she was taken to the ER where doctors realized that what she was battling was far worse.

After a spinal tap and a series of blood tests, Spangler was diagnosed with sepsis-a life-threatening medical condition. "It's the reaction of the body towards an infection," explains Mark Miller, M.D., a microbiologist and chief medical officer at bioMérieux. "It can start in the lungs or urine or could even be something as simple as appendicitis, but it's basically the body's immune system overreacting and causing various types of organ failure and tissue damage."

It wouldn't be out of the norm if you haven't heard of sepsis before. "The problem with sepsis is that it's highly unrecognized and people haven't heard of it," Dr. Miller says. (Related: Can Extreme Exercise Actually Cause Sepsis?)

Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over a million cases of sepsis happen every year. It's the ninth leading cause of disease-related deaths in America. In fact, sepsis kills more people in the U.S. than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined, according to the National Institutes of Health.

To spot early warning signs, Dr. Miller recommends going to the emergency room if you have "a rash, are short of breath, and have an overwhelming feeling of doom"-which can be your body's way of telling you something is really wrong and that you need immediate help.(The CDC has a list of other symptoms to look out for as well.)

Fortunately, for Spangler and her family, once the doctors realized these signs, they transferred her to the UNC Children's Hospital where she was rushed to the ICU to receive the care she needed to save her life. A month later, Spangler was finally discharged from the hospital and began her road to recovery.

"Because of complications from the flu and the sepsis I was left wheelchair bound and had to have extensive physical therapy after that four times a week to learn how to walk again," Spangler says. "I'm very thankful for the village of people that helped me get to where I am today."

While her childhood experience was traumatizing, Spangler says that her near-fatal illness helped her determine her life's purpose-something she says she wouldn't trade for the world. "I've seen how other individuals have been affected by sepsis-sometimes they lose limbs and don't regain their ability to function, or even lose their cognition," she said. "That's a large reason why I decided to go into medicine to try to create the kind of future for everyone that helped me get here."

Today, at 25 years old, Spangler is an advocate for sepsis education and awareness and recently graduated from the UNC School of Medicine. She will complete her residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at UNC Hospital-the same place that helped save her life all those years ago. "It's kind of come full circle, which is pretty awesome," she said.

No one is immune to sepsis, which makes awareness so important. That's why the CDC has increased its support for projects that focus on sepsis prevention and early recognition among health care providers, patients, and their families.

"The key is to recognize it early," Dr. Miller says. "If you intervene with the proper support and targeted antibiotics, it will help save that person's life."


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