A woman has revealed a picture of her in intensive care with sepsis – so severe she had to learn to walk again.
Suzanne Graham, 45, was suffering from what she suspected was a bad cold in the run-up to Christmas.
She was struggling to breathe and talk, so she made an appointment with her GP.
Suzanne hoped to recover quickly, but her symptoms rapidly worsened, and she was taken to intensive care and attached to a ventilator.
She had severe pneumonia and 10-20 percent of lung function, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and sepsis.
Suzanne, from Glasgow, was in intensive care for ten days – so long her muscles wasted away – and she was unable to sit in bed.
She couldn’t stand and had to learn to walk again with the help of three physiotherapists.
After extensive work during the week with physiotherapists to learn to adjust to using crutches, Suzanne was finally able to return home following the ordeal in 2019.
Speaking about when she first fell in, she said: ”I was busy and there was a lot of happening.
“I had a cold that I didn’t think too much about, but it just lingered.
”When it got closer to Christmas, I started to get more unwell, but I thought that the cold had just developed into the flu.
“Looking back, I had no idea how unwell I really was. I’d been unwell for a number of days, and I couldn’t sleep. I was really struggling to breathe.
“One night, I couldn’t sleep, and I remembered that my friend, who was the same age as me, had pneumonia.
”I thought that was unusual because I’d always associated pneumonia with older people, so I looked up the symptoms of pneumonia and the flu, and quickly found that my symptoms were all pointing towards pneumonia.”
Suzanne arranged an emergency appointment with her GP, but her condition had worsened to the point where she was unable to walk for any length of time.
“My husband had to help me get to the GP. It was about 50 meters (164.04 feet) up the road, but my husband had to drive me.
“The GP measured my blood oxygen and listened to my lungs. I just remember her saying to me, ‘I don’t want to alarm you, but we will be calling an ambulance – you have to go to hospital.’
“The ambulance came and took me to intensive care. I remember getting into the ambulance, but I have no memories from then on, so this is all from what I’ve been told by family members.”
Upon arriving at intensive care, Suzanne was attached to a ventilator – but again, the situation worsened.
“I was in need of oxygen. It took a little bit of time to attach the ventilator, and then they came back and spoke to my husband.
”They said that the situation had spiraled out of control, and the oxygen that I was getting from the ventilator wasn’t going to be enough to keep me alive.
“The only treatment option that was available was ECMO treatment. It is specifically coordinated in Leicester and there’s a specific protocol you have to follow to access the treatment.
”They had to see if I was suitable for it too because not everybody is – and they only deliver it in a few places across the UK,” said Suzanne.
ECMO, or Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation, is a treatment used in extreme cases where a patient’s lungs or heart are not functioning at a normal level.
The machine uses an artificial lung to oxygenate the blood outside the body.
Luckily, Suzanne was eligible for the treatment – but the closest machine was 145 miles away, in Aberdeen.
A team of five medical staff drove through the night with a portable ECMO machine, which Suzanne was immediately hooked up to on arrival.
“Normally, they would hook you up to an ECMO machine in a theater, but I was so unwell that they couldn’t move me at all. Then they took me and drove me through the night to Aberdeen in an ambulance.
“Essentially, the pneumonia had become severe. I had 10-20% of lung function, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and sepsis.
“It was getting into a multi-organ failure type situation – my lungs and kidneys were failing.”
Suzanne was in Aberdeen for seven days, where she continued to receive ECMO treatment. Luckily, she responded well and was able to be transferred back to Glasgow to continue her treatment.
She was still in intensive care, but no longer needed a ventilator to breathe, and doctors were able to take Suzanne out of the heavily medicated state she had been in throughout her ordeal.
“This is when I start to have memories of being there,” she said.
“I was massively confused about what had happened, because of a mix of what my body went through, and the drugs that I was given. I had quite severe hallucinations.
“I didn’t know they were hallucinations at the time – I thought everything was just very strange.”
Now fully conscious, Suzanne was moved to a high-dependency unit for the next week, where her recovery began.
“I was bedbound. I was in hospital for three weeks, and it’s amazing just how quickly you lose your muscle mass.
”I think they call it ‘intensive care syndrome’ – because you’re just lying there, you lose your muscles. My muscles had just wasted away in that time.”
Unable to sit up in bed, never mind stand, three physiotherapists had to help her stand for the first time, as she was no longer able to support her own body weight.
After extensive work during the week with physiotherapists to learn to adjust to using crutches, Suzanne was finally able to return home.
Hospital staff told her that recovery could take a year, based on the severity of her illness and the time spent in intensive care, so Suzanne began to process her experience.
“Mentally, it’s been a lot. It’s a known thing for people in intensive care to experience hallucinations – people can struggle with making sense of that,” said Suzanne.
“Mine were so real, and I was convinced they were. It took me a while to accept that they weren’t. That throws a lot of things into confusion – was this memory real, was it another hallucination?
“My brain also felt really slow and I was worried about returning to work. What if I couldn’t remember how to do my job?
“Physically, the main recovery was centered around building up my fitness. I’d lost a lot of weight and muscle mass, so I was building up fitness.
“I’m so grateful to the doctors and hospital staff, they were amazing. My family were there by my side the whole time and supported me through.
“I’ve been extremely lucky to survive it intact – sepsis can cause loss of limbs and have other physical effects. I’m very lucky to have made a complete recovery.”
Now five years on, and fully recovered, Suzanne has become passionate about sharing her story to raise awareness of the symptoms and dangers of sepsis – a medical emergency which kills around 50,000 people per year in the UK.
According to charity Sepsis Research FEAT, symptoms to look out for including very high or low temperature, confusion, shaking, blotchy skin and a difficulty urinating – combinations of these symptoms or rapidly worsening symptoms, are a reason to seek urgent medical attention.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker