Caitlin's Sepsis Story – Wearing Her Scars with Pride

Caitlin Alsop Banner.jpg

I was the girl terrified of hospitals. It's ironic that; it was there, I faced the biggest fight of my life, met my true heroes and in nearly losing my tongue, gained a whole new voice and cause for something I previously knew nothing about. Every day, I am so grateful to the doctors and nurses for my life. Giving back to the hospital and raising awareness about sepsis and sepsis survivors has become my mission. This is my story of sepsis and my second chance at life.

At 23, after a quiet Saturday night dinner with a friend, following a ‘common cold’; I was home alone and thought I had bitten my tongue. Tired, I lay on my bed, icing my tongue. Little did I know, this slight pain and fatigue would be the first clue to something much more sinister. Less than an hour later, my tongue had swelled, started to block my airway and left me speechless. I’d heard of sepsis but didn’t know what it was and didn’t think it would happen to me.

Home alone, unable to speak with shallow breath - I texted photos of my tongue to people I knew, trying to get answers. Thankfully, my aunt replied and that reply saved my life, as I was running out of energy and eyes closing. We suspected anaphylaxis; she bundled me into the car and raced me to the local hospital.

“45 minutes and you’ll be out”. That’s what we were told by the kind doctors at the hospital, who too, thought it was anaphylaxis. I don’t blame them - all symptoms pointed to this. They gave me two adrenaline shots and a steroid...but it had the opposite effect. My blood pressure completely dropped, my breathing worsened, and I kept passing out, with a rash rapidly spreading over my body. That “45 minutes” turned into an emergency ambulance transfer, induced coma for 9 days and life-saving surgery.

The local hospital tried everything they could, but hadn’t seen this before and made the call for an emergency ambulance transfer to a bigger hospital, with the possibility of an ambulance tracheostomy. Because of my condition, I couldn’t have anyone but doctors in the ambulance with me. The medics were so kind, but I was so scared... It's a scary feeling being strapped in and unable to breathe.

When I arrived at the bigger hospital, there were nearly 20 doctors and specialists waiting. They transferred me to the Intensive Care Unit, where they put me in an induced coma, paralyzed me, and put me on life support (ventilator). My family was told to prepare for the worst as I remained a medical mystery, and the doctors raced against time.

How did this happen? I was a healthy 23-year-old walking around and then, I was fighting for my life, tubed, ventilated, and burning inside out. The question plagued us all. I had seen multiple GP’s about a random rash on my face and a doctor about a common cold days before, but none would have guessed this would happen. That’s the reality of sepsis; it can strike anyone at any moment, yet, many of us don’t know until it’s almost too late. Thankfully, my heroes fought hard and saved my life.

Like most sepsis survivors, I rely on what I was told after I awoke. I was comatose for 9 days with up to 100 people working on me and my mystery condition. I had scans, tests, and infectious disease specialists; but kept deteriorating. The rash burnt the top half of my body, my tongue blackened from lack of circulation and there were talks of amputation. The real cause was sepsis, resulting from Ludwig’s Angina and cellulitis. An unknown infected impacted wisdom tooth shown in a CT scan nearly cost me my life! I had no pain, good oral hygiene and no other symptoms, but the infection took over my body and nearly killed me.

The next part was really scary for my family, but the doctors were amazing. The infection swelling started to crush my jugular vein and there was concern for blood flow to my heart and brain. They needed to quickly stop the infection, preserve my blood supply to my heart and brain and my black tongue couldn't be amputated. Thankfully, they saved my life by surgically removing the tooth, inserting neck drains and putting me on heavy dose IV antibiotics.  

After more than a week in a coma, I woke up, started breathing on my own and slowly recovered. I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be alive. Disoriented and scared, under the influence of drugs, I seriously believed what I had thought ‘happened’ was reality. I remember thinking I was stuck in a body I didn’t understand, and I didn’t understand why my brain didn’t work properly or why simple tasks such as sitting up felt so hard. At the same time, I had never felt more grateful to be able to see, hear, and breathe. I was very weak but after a few days, I was walking; the machines and tubes disappeared. I took myself off painkillers and it was explained to me that the scary ‘reality’ was an effect of the drugs. I wish I had known about the Global Sepsis Alliance back then, because I really didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t know anything about sepsis.

I found World Sepsis Day through Facebook. It’s such a great community to share concerns, hear inspiring stories, and support each other. I had so many questions, couldn’t eat, talk properly and didn’t understand why my brain was so foggy or why I’d stop mid-sentence and forget. I love meeting new people and helping make a difference and just recently the community helped us with someone facing sepsis in the critical hours.

I’m so thankful to be here and determined to make a difference in the world, give back to the hospital and change sepsis. It was in that hospital bed that I made the decision I had been given a second chance at life and to wear my scars with pride, so that others feel okay about theirs, too. Never did I think that my story would allow me to reach the thousands of people that we’ve been able to reach, and I am so grateful everyday just to be here to join the fight against sepsis and make an impact. I am honored to be able to share my story through the Alliance and raise awareness for sepsis and World Sepsis Day.

The article above was written by Caitlin Alsop and is shared here with her explicit consent. The views in the article do not necessarily represent those of the Global Sepsis Alliance. They are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The whole team here at the GSA and World Sepsis Day wishes to thank Caitlin for sharing her story and for fighting to raise awareness for sepsis.

Marvin Zick