Laura Williams says sepsis was a life-changing experience and, despite being a medical professional, she had no idea what she was suffering from when it struck.
Laura, a podiatrist from Sussex, was feeling wonderful when she went to work as usual on the 3rd of February 2019. She travelled to a nursing home to treat patients and was given a hug by one of her regular clients who, Laura later discovered, was developing uncontrollable sickness and diarrhoea.
Two days later she woke in the middle of the night with sickness and diarrhoea herself, which she feared might have been caught from the patient, and also had toothache. Although her reasoning was sound, she did not have that particular bug but was suffering from the first signs of sepsis from a bacterial infection underneath her tongue.
However, thinking it was a sickness bug she phoned her doctor and dentist for advice and was advised to come to the surgery if her condition worsened.
Laura, 39, says: “I remember feeling so ill I felt like the girl in The Exorcist with the head spinning round but I was adamant it was the sickness bug and I wasn’t going to go to the doctors and there was nothing they could do apart from advise me to drink loads of water.”
On the 7th of February Laura knew she needed further medical advice. The onset of sepsis was having serious effects; she was hallucinating because the message she thought she heard when she phoned the surgery was that it was closed for staff training.
Fortunately, Laura’s mum was on hand. She immediately phoned the surgery and got an appointment within 30 minutes during which Laura was advised she needed an urgent appointment with her dentist.
Laura says: “My temperature was sky high, my oxygen levels were low and my pulse was fast. I was shaking and I had no neck. However, I think he did the right thing sending me to the dentist because they know more about that particular area.
“After getting out of the doctors we were sat in the dentist’s chair within an hour. My mum had to come in with me because I could barely talk. After doing a very quick examination I remember my dentist saying I don’t want to scare you, however you need IV antibiotics right now. As a medical professional I knew what that meant and the only thought that went through my brain was ‘oh this is serious!’
“My mum phoned my dad while in the car saying you are going to have to take us to A&E as soon as we get home. I do not think I’ve ever seen my dad speed that much. He took us to A&E at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and there were 44 people there. I really knew I wasn’t well because I was in triage within two minutes. One minute later I had the maxillofacial doctor in with triage. Five minutes later I had had an X-ray and then was wheeled to A&E majors because I was so weak. They had taken bloods and I was attached to IV antibiotics, steroids and fluids.
“They wanted to do an MRI on my head but I have a bone-anchored hearing aid which meant they had to change plans and give me a CAT scan instead. I was on heparin to stop amputations and after five and a half hours of being pumped with drugs and a CT scan where the dye leaked out and they had to put an ice cold glove on my arm to bring down the irritation.
“When I went to surgery they needed two anaesthetists because they were scared they were going to have to do a tracheotomy. One person was having to put general anaesthetic in my arm while the other anaesthetist was having to prepare me for intubation down my right nostril as my throat had swollen and they couldn’t get it down my windpipe.
“I was still awake at this point as it is too dangerous to intubate a person with Ludwigs angina, which is what I had, if they are asleep. It took 20 minutes for them to get me to sleep and when I woke up I was in immense pain.”
Through her pain Laura heard the anaesthetist say to another member of staff “it’s a good job her mum and dad brought her in because she wouldn’t be here if they had waited for the ambulance”.
She was bleeding from the mouth because the medical team had to take out three teeth and had two drains inserted in her neck which Laura says made her feel “like a cross between Frankenstein‘s monster and a hamster” because her face was so swollen.
After being moved back to a ward, staff checked on her every 15 minutes. “I was feeling really cold, however in reality I was burning up. You probably could have cooked an egg on my neck.”
Laura spent only four days in hospital but after a month at home she started to get flashbacks and signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with the flashbacks starting initially when she was asleep and then when she was awake.
She says: “It meant I was not wanting to go to sleep so I was excessively tired and had brain fog and short-term memory loss. This was a massive form of anxiety for me because I need to write my patient notes. I found not being able to remember words when I was writing notes to be horrendous.
“The infection around my mouth and neck was there for about three months and it kept on coming back and to this day I still have swelling in the right side of my neck near my lymph node.
“But the fact that I didn’t want to go to sleep and I was so exhausted meant that everything got to the point where I felt like I was made of lead and so I was having joint and muscle pain.
“My temperature regulation was shot as well. I was either going through the menopause with hot flushes or feeling like I was in the Arctic. On one occasion I was in the clinic with a vest tunic hoodie, coat and a blanket and I was still freezing even though we had the heating on.
“To this day I still struggle with my mental health. However, I have found that humour is a big thing because where I had the drains in my neck I would have the likes of Niagara Falls coming out. I had a friend called it ‘chincontinence’.
“Since this happened, it has been my aim in life to help others save lives and to raise awareness of sepsis. Consequently, since the beginning of lockdown, I have developed an online course, started a YouTube channel and a podcast. I have also contacted a number of healthcare professional survivors and I want to see about doing some research into post-sepsis syndrome.
“It is my aim to build a community of survivors because, with 19 million people surviving sepsis each year, I don’t want any of them to feel alone. I also want to provide education about sepsis and its aftermath to healthcare professionals and survivors and their families.
“I’d also like to thank Sepsis Research FEAT for the work you do as the only charity in the UK dedicated to raising money for research into the illness and I urge people to support you.”
You can hear more from Laura at Sepsis Survivor Stories the podcast here. Download her Signs and Symptoms of Post Sepsis Syndrome, and Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis Cheatsheets here.
If you’d like to know more, Laura has her own YouTube channel, Laura Williams sepsis education Worthing Sussex which you can access here.