A student nurse had no idea she had sepsis – until she went to hospital suffering from a ‘Fresher’s flu’ and was told she was lucky to be alive.
Shocked Ciara Flynn, 22, first felt faint whilst travelling on the underground in London but didn’t think much of it – assuming she was coming down with a bout of ‘Fresher’s flu’ – illness contracted by new students during the first few weeks at a university.
But when she visited the Royal London Hospital A&E after seeking advice from a fellow medical student, Ciara was whisked into intensive care feeling like she was ‘going to die’ and doctors realised she was in septic shock.
The septic shock originated from bacterial meningitis – an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord – and carries a 21 per cent mortality rate.
Bacterial meningitis is very common in young people and students. Ciara believes she may have contracted the infection through living in student accommodation.
There is a preventative vaccine available free of charge against this strain, but Ciara had not opted to get the jab before her condition arose.
Ciara spent six weeks in the Royal London Hospital undergoing urgent treatment to keep her alive, with her family 470 miles away in Leitrim, Ireland, initially unaware of her critical condition.
Despite her brush with death, the nursing student has mostly recovered, suffering only from occasional fatigue and headaches, and realises how lucky she was to catch the condition when she did – and is now on track to achieve a first class honours in her nursing degree.
The thankful 22-year-old, originally from Aughnasheelan, Leitrim, Ireland, said: “The doctors really did save my life. When I was lying in the hospital bed, I really thought I was going to die.
“Although this was literally a near-death experience, it has enlightened me as a nurse to raise awareness of sepsis, how important it is to seek medical advice when you feel something is not right and how literally anyone at any age and any profession can get sepsis.”
Ciara – who was studying in her final year at the University of West London for a nursing degree – was struck with septic shock at the beginning of October 2019, just after returning to university over the summer break.
She had taken the underground tube in London to visit a coursemate in the capital when she started to feel very weak and faint and could feel her heart beating irregularly.
Ciara said: “I just assumed I had Fresher’s flu, like the many other people in my student accommodation, which houses 400 people.
“There were many new people moving into the buildings and a lot of people were catching infections or coming down with Fresher’s Flu. I had felt fine, if just slightly run down.”
Still feeling awful, a medical student advised Ciara to go to the nearest accident and emergency department to be checked over, realising her symptoms may be more serious than they first seemed.
Ciara said: “I felt very silly going, as felt it was nothing more than perhaps a mild infection.”
She attended the Royal London Hospital in October 2020, and was examined by doctors.
“I got the same weak feeling I had on the tube and began shivering with a splitting headache and struggling to breathe. I felt like I was going to die. Doctors then told me I was in septic shock,” she said.
“I was brought straight to a resus ward where monitors were attached everywhere on my body.
“After an hour, I suddenly got really bad shivers and a horrible headache. One of the healthcare assistants knew there was something up immediately and took my temperature, which at this point was only 37.9 but was quickly rising.
“I was then given paracetamol to try help the headache and temperature. My skin was also quite mottled, and I was very swollen.”
When Ciara then struggled to breathe, doctors started the sepsis six protocol immediately – the guideline to follow to save a patient’s life if they’ve been infected.
These steps are designed to reduce the mortality rates in sepsis patients, which was halved after the steps were enacted. The process includes taking blood cultures and inserting an IV drip into a patient, making sure all sepsis patients receive identical treatment.
“My blood pressure was dangerously low and despite eight litres of fluids being given intravenously my blood pressure continued to drop and I continued to deteriorate. My temperature at this stage was 41 degrees but I was freezing,” Ciara said.
Doctors then rushed Ciara back to ITU, inserting a central line and an arterial line, and gave her multiple medications.
“At this point I was unsure of my future, as were the medical team. Because of the headache, photophobia and sore neck they also queried meningitis, so I was put on treatment for it immediately,” Ciara said.
“I was so swollen and puffy from all the medications being given. I honestly didn’t recognise myself.”
Ciara believes she may have contracted the infection through living in student accommodation and her family were called by medical staff to fly over to the UK from Ireland as soon as they could.
After nearly a week in ITU she was transferred to a ward again and started to mend after her experiences.
She said: “I continued getting very high temperatures, headaches, shortness of breath, but they still could not figure out the source of the infection.
“They knew the bacteria but not where it came from. Many believed it was the meningitis which led to it all. I had numerous tests from ECG’s, echocardiograms, CT scans with contrast, x-rays, among numerous blood tests.
“I could be fine one minute and the next minute I could be lying in the bed with a sky-high temperature, yet feeling cold, have a high heart rate and really fast breathing. I really was a mystery to the medical teams.”
During her five-week stint inside the hospital ward, Ciara was supposed to be on her final 12-week nursing placement before qualifying.
Alongside worrying about her recovery from sepsis, she now doubted she would ever regain the strength and ability to become a nurse.
But against all odds, Ciara is on track to receive a first-class honours in nursing in February this year.
“Anyone would question how someone who was so sick could regain the ability to return to a course. I was advised by many to take at least a year out to recover, but I knew I could bounce back,” Ciara said.
“I changed my dissertation topic to focus it on post-sepsis rehabilitation in which I was startled to see only 36% of sepsis survivors return to work within one year.
“Although this was literally a near death experience, it has enlightened me.
“I know this will make me a better nurse. I am more empathetic than every towards patients and know that through all the ups and downs nursing is the job for me.
“I have recovered way faster than expected. Despite still getting easily fatigued, slight headaches I am nearly back to baseline.
“I struggle with little things on a day to day basis. I get short of breath easier, and because I was so long in hospital, including being critically ill, my muscle mass decreased significantly.
“However, with determination and willpower it will get better. I have a new outlook on life now.”