The Christmas and New Year period, for most people, is a time to celebrate with family and friends. And happily that is what Suzanne Graham is doing this year. But it was a very different story for Suzanne at this time last year after she became seriously ill with sepsis.
Suzanne, 41, from Glasgow, now says she is “one of the luckiest people in the world” and will be forever grateful to a team of off-duty doctors and nurses who drove through the night from Aberdeen with specialist equipment to help her because she was too ill to be moved from hospital in Glasgow.
Suzanne, who has a PhD in Immunology and works for NHS Education, developed a cold in the run-up to Christmas and, as Christmas Day approached, she thought it was worsening into ‘flu’.
She made it to her Mum’s house for Christmas Day but, after an hour, felt so bad she had to go home to bed. She stayed at home for a couple of days following the NHS’s general advice for people with ‘flu’ to stay away from the GP’s surgery and took the usual remedies brought from a pharmacy by her husband, Neil.
Then, in the early hours of December 28, there was a dramatic change in Suzanne’s condition. She couldn’t sleep and spent the early hours researching symptoms for pneumonia which, because of her worsening condition, she thought she might have.
At 8.30am she called her GP’s surgery, a decision which may have saved her life, and was given an appointment for 10.30.
Suzanne said: “By then I was struggling with my breathing and talking. I live less than 100 meters from the GP’s surgery but was feeling so ill I was wondering if I would physically be able to get there. My husband called the surgery again to see if we could get a home visit, which they said we could, but couldn’t guarantee when it would be. We decided to keep the original appointment and get it done sooner rather than later – this decision perhaps saved my life”.
“My husband drove me to the surgery. When I saw the GP she measured my blood oxygen and listened to my chest. I remember her saying ‘I don’t want to alarm you, but I will be calling an ambulance’. My blood oxygen was around 80% but I had no idea how serious this was. The GP gave me oxygen while we were waiting for the ambulance”.
“I remember being taken into the ambulance in the chair and my husband was with me. I remember perhaps the first few minutes of the journey but don’t remember arriving at the hospital. Everything for the next 7-10 days is what people told me happened.
“When we arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I was taken to the Intensive Care Unit pretty quickly. I was conscious and communicating with staff and family. The doctor discussed putting me on a ventilator which I was happy to happen”.
“At some point my parents and sister arrived and I was speaking to them but have no memories of this. In the afternoon I was taken to get the ventilator inserted. I believe this is when things went from bad to worse and I think this is when sepsis was diagnosed. I also had Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.”
Suzanne’s doctor explained to Neil and her sister that her condition had deteriorated to the point where the ventilator was unable to provide her with enough oxygen and the only treatment left was to be put on an ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine which pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.
The doctors called the ECMO coordinating centre in Leicester to check if Suzanne was a suitable patient and if they had services available. Thankfully, they did and her case was referred to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the only place in Scotland that provides an adult ECMO service.
Suzanne said: “Somehow the Aberdeen centre was able to get a team together to drive from there to Glasgow. There were two doctors and three nurses, none of whom had been working and gave up their time to save me.”
The Aberdeen team brought a portable ECMO machine and normally Suzanne would have been hooked up to it in an operating theatre. However, her vital signs were worsening and it would have been too dangerous to move her so she was hooked up to the machine in the ICU.
Suzanne said: “Somehow they managed it and then I believe we drove through the night to Aberdeen and arrived early on the Saturday morning. I was transferred onto the main ECMO machine and the doctors thought I would need to be on it for 7-10 days. Fortunately, I responded very well to the treatment and was only on the machine for around three days.
“My husband and parents were able to stay in rooms provided by the hospital in the ICU ward. My sister and brother-in-law stayed in a hotel nearby. I believe I came off the ECMO machine on 31st of December, which I thought was a good new year omen. My poor family basically lived in the ICU department in Aberdeen for a whole week and I can’t imagine how emotionally distressing that must have been.”
Suzanne remained under sedation in Aberdeen ICU for a week and has no memory of the period. She returned to the Queen Elizabeth in Glasgow where the ventilator was removed, her sedation was reduced and she was transferred from ICU to the High Dependency Unit.
Suzanne said: “I have lots of memories from this point onwards, though I now realise most of them were hallucinations. I was delirious and the hallucinations were extremely vivid and really frightening at times. It was quite a while before I fully accepted they were hallucinations”.
“I was in high dependency for a while and this is where I feel my recovery started – when I stood up for the first time it took the help of three physios. I basically had to learn to walk again as my muscles had wasted away. This was difficult, but I was very determined to make a full recovery and get out of hospital as soon as I could. Overall, I spent three weeks in hospital. I left hospital able to walk with crutches”.
“I received the most amazing care from the NHS and can’t thank everyone enough. I consider myself extremely lucky to have survived the experience. I feel sorry for my family as they were the ones that lived through the trauma and stress”.
“I’m not sure when it fully sunk in about what I went through and that I’d had sepsis. I originally thought sepsis was bacteria in the blood, but since going through this experience, I realise it is much more complicated than that and, despite having a PhD in Immunology, I still don’t really understand it! I am extremely grateful that I fully survived sepsis, I know many others are not as lucky.”
Suzanne believes more effort must be made to raise awareness about sepsis and its symptoms as many people simply associate it with things like infected cuts rather than an illness such as pneumonia.
Suzanne has made a full recovery, is back at work and looking forward to a happier Christmas and New Year this time around.
She said: “I must be one of the luckiest people in the world. I am thankful every day for the NHS and my family. When the little things in life feel like they are taking over, I remind myself what we’ve all been through and this helps to identify what’s really important. Look after yourself and your loved ones. At the end of the day that’s all that really matters.”
For more information on ECMO, see https://www.leicestershospitals.nhs.uk/aboutus/departments-services/heart-services/ecmo/