How to recognize and survive a deadly sepsis infection — From a doctor with personal experience

Every year, we set aside one day to raise awareness and unite against the world’s most preventable cause of death: sepsis. The Global Sepsis Alliance initiated World Sepsis Day in 2012, to be celebrated every year on Sept. 13, with the goals to decrease incidences of sepsis through prevention strategies and to increase sepsis survival around the world for adults, children, and newborns by 2020.

The World Sepsis Day website says sepsis “arises when the body’s response to an infection injures its own tissues and organs. It may lead to shock, multiple organ failure, and death, especially if not recognized early and treated promptly.” (

Most commonly, infections including pneumonia, intra-abdominal infections, and urinary tract infections lead to sepsis.

To learn more about sepsis and its occurrence in hospitals, Healthy Me PA sat down with Dr. Thomas Stoner, a physician at UPMC Pinnacle and one of the vice presidents who oversees the service line that manages the hospitalists, intensive care units, and post-acute care.

Dr. Stoner has encountered plenty of sepsis cases since he began working in medicine in 1991, but his passion for education and awareness became full-blown when two cases struck close to home.

In 2014, Dr. Stoner’s youngest son was hospitalized for two weeks with a case of pneumonia that developed into sepsis and septic shock. He was on oxygen for three weeks and was out of school for almost six while he was in recovery.

“There were several times during his hospitalization that I feared that he would need to get on a ventilator for breathing assistance, or possibly die,” Dr. Stoner says.

Sepsis touched Dr. Stoner’s life personally not once but twice. After giving birth to his grandchild, Dr. Stoner’s oldest daughter almost died after developing a severe infection that became septic. She was hospitalized for 12 days and took months to recover after the infection caused kidney failure and low blood count. Dr. Stoner’s daughter needed 25 units of blood for transfusion, antibiotics for an extended period, and an intensive care unit stay.

“My personal near-tragedies with both my son and my daughter, having recovered fully, have given me even more impetus and drive to become more of a sepsis champion and to drive education and awareness around this deadly killer, which we see very commonly,” Dr. Stoner says.

About a million Americans each year get sepsis. Although hospitals are getting much better at treating this deadly condition, many (40-70%) of the people who get sepsis die.

Hospitals in Pennsylvania and across the country have been working to adopt best practices to more effectively identify and treat sepsis. Through The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania’s (HAP’s) Hospital Improvement Innovation Network (HIIN), health care experts are teaming with hospitals to address this critical issue. Their goals are to reduce mortality after severe sepsis or septic shock by 20 percent and to reduce 30-day readmissions from any cause, including sepsis, by 12 percent.

The good news is that you can take steps to avoid getting sepsis. Knowing the symptoms—and acting quickly if you see them in yourself or a loved one—gives you the best chance of survival.

As with most diseases, awareness and education are important. Unfortunately, many people are more aware of malaria and other diseases and viruses that don’t affect Americans nearly as much as sepsis does. Hospitals in Pennsylvania and across the country have been working to adopt best practices to more effectively identify and treat sepsis, just as sepsis champions such as Dr. Stoner are dedicated to raising this awareness and preventing death by sepsis.

“We believe education is critical because 50 percent or less of the adult population actually understands or is aware of the definition of sepsis,” he says. “And because sepsis is very preventable, it’s important to know that someone who has an infection, like pneumonia, and becomes short of breath, has a high fever for more than a day, and isn’t eating or drinking, those people need to be seen immediately either by their primary care physician, urgent care, or emergency room.”

Because many infections can lead to sepsis, being educated on ways to prevent it is imperative.

Only about 50 percent of people know what sepsis is, depending on where they live and their level of education, according to “Likewise, it is poorly known that sepsis can be prevented by vaccination and clean care and that early recognition and treatment reduces sepsis mortality by 50 percent. This lack of knowledge makes sepsis the number one preventable cause of death worldwide.”

Voice your concerns to the staff if you ever develop a serious infection requiring hospital attention. Knowing the symptoms of when an infection is becoming septic can help you prevent sepsis from becoming serious.

The symptoms that could indicate sepsis include:

  • Fever, chills
  • Altered mental state
  • Feeling “severely sick”
  • Confusion
  • Apathy
  • Difficult or rapid breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate

Participate in World Sepsis Day by learning more about the condition and by spreading the word about prevention techniques to help decrease death from sepsis!