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The Near-Death Moment That Changed My Life as a Mom

Photograph by Twenty20

Recently actress Patty Duke, known for her role as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," died at the age of 69 of sepsis brought on by a ruptured intestine. If you don't know what sepsis is, you're not alone.

That's because sepsis, when the body's response to an infection damages tissues and organs and can be life-threatening, is seldom listed as the cause of death.

I only know what sepsis is because a year ago this week, I was in the ER and diagnosed with sepsis brought on by pneumonia. I was in septic shock (when toxins trigger a full-body inflammatory response), with dangerously low blood pressure and kidney failure. It wasn't until after they stabilized me in the ER and moved me to the ICU that I learned that the hospital staff wasn't sure I was going to make it. Statistics put severe sepsis and septic shock at a mortality rate at 50 to 80 percent, which means I had as little as a 20 percent chance of walking out of that hospital. To say I was lucky would be an understatement.

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If you're a mom, you have said these words: "I don't have time to be sick." Pushing ourselves hard, going without sleep and skipping doctor appointments because we don't have time go with the territory of taking care of little ones. When we feel illness coming on, we pop a couple of ibuprofen, drink a glass of water and try to go to bed an hour earlier than usual hoping that it's enough to get us up and running again. We might have a fleeting thought about our own mortality once we have kids, but we figure we'll be OK. We have to, right? We're moms and our kids need us.

I was dying and I didn't even know it.

Before my illness last year, I had a three-day rule when it came to being sick; I gave any illness three days of as much rest and fluids as I could manage before I sought medical care. In this case, if I had waited a full three days, I might have died.

I had a great, productive Monday. It was spring and the week of both my husband's birthday and Easter. So I was trying to knock out a bunch of deadlines so I could enjoy the weekend. Everything was good and life was wonderful.

By Tuesday morning, I was experiencing body aches and chills and figured I just needed some rest. By Wednesday, my husband's birthday, I was vomiting and had diarrhea, so I assumed I had the flu or a stomach bug and just needed another day of rest. By Thursday morning, my husband had to practically carry me to the car to get me to the doctor. I couldn't walk more than a step or two and had to use a wheelchair to get from the car to the doctor's office.

My doctor told me I didn't have the flu, but she wanted me to get some blood work done next door at the urgent care facility. I was so severely dehydrated they couldn't find a vein and my blood pressure had dropped to the point where I couldn't stand up at all. I was barely coherent at that point. My husband had left with my younger son to go pick up my older son from school, so the urgent care facility called an ambulance to take me to the hospital. I had left my purse and cell phone at home and it took me three tries to remember my husband's cell phone number so the nurse could call my husband and tell him to meet me at the hospital.

I was dying and I didn't even know it.

Sepsis kills over 258,000 Americans each year, with over 1 million cases each year, and it is the ninth leading cause of disease-related death.

In less than three days, I went from healthy to nearly dying, from planning a birthday and making Easter baskets to leaving my husband a widower and my children motherless. If it seems overly dramatic, believe me, it feels even more surreal now—a year later—to comprehend everything I experienced that week. But my situation isn't rare. According to the CDC, sepsis kills over 258,000 Americans each year, with over 1 million cases each year, and it is the ninth leading cause of disease-related death.

I can't say I experienced a life-changing epiphany from my experience. I have everything I could possibly imagine to make a happy life and there was no "a-ha!" moment making me think I should be doing or pursuing something else. In fact, I remember a moment of clarity while lying in the ICU, listening to the beeps and whirrs of the various machines while three IV needles give me life-saving medication. I thought that if I was to die that day, I was OK with it. I had lived a very good life.

That memory is rather chilling now because I realize I was so far gone that I was able to accept my own death. I want more—we all do—and I want to be there for my husband and my kids, well beyond their childhoods. Sepsis almost ended that for me.

I no longer have a three-day rule. Now I pay closer attention to my symptoms, as does my husband who told me after I left the hospital last year that if I so much as coughed, he was taking me to the ER again. He was joking—sort of—but that experience shook us both.

Sepsis awareness is growing. September is Sepsis Awareness Month, and hopefully the tragic death of Patty Duke will help continue to spread the word about this life-threatening illness.

The CDC recommends that if you are suffering from an infection or have the symptoms of sepsis, that you call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately and very clearly say, "I am concerned about sepsis." Even though I didn't know what sepsis was, I was lucky to be quickly diagnosed in the ER and given a cocktail of drugs to help stabilize me and raise my blood pressure before I went into cardiac arrest. Had I not arrived by ambulance and been made to wait in the ER with flu-like symptoms, I might not be here today.

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I am tremendously grateful for the quick and thorough care I received that kept me from dying last year. I have read of dozens of cases of sepsis and septic shock deaths among people from all walks of life. Some people are more susceptible to sepsis, but no one is immune. I've always been appreciative of the amazing life I have and I want to be around for my husband and children for as long as I possibly can—but I am very much aware of my own mortality now.

My near-death experience brought clarity and an awareness that I am not invincible or immortal. I'm a mom and I don't have time to be sick—but I'm a mom and I don't want to leave my kids motherless, either.

Take care of yourself. For your family.

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