Feet resting in the warm Caribbean sand, the sun shining onto the clear blue water, and her husband of five years by her side, Alicia Carnot, 32, was having the time of her life. For their anniversary, this Sicklerville mother of two was enjoying a dream vacation on the island of Mustique, a small private island that is part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
After a week on the island, Alicia and her husband, Daniel, returned to the reality of everyday life-taking care of their children and working. Alicia worked in a hospital as Director of Risk Management. Soon afterwards, Alicia began to fall ill with fevers and chest pain. “I knew there was something wrong but no one could figure out what it was,” Alicia said. During this time Alicia discovered that she was pregnant. A week went by, and Alicia got worse. She went to her local community hospital several times and was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that is usually caused by a viral infection.
She was home one afternoon when she began to have difficulty breathing. She knew she needed to go to the emergency department. Instead of going back to the same hospital, she chose Cooper.
“I’m in the medical field and know some of the specialties of the hospitals in our area. I knew that if something was seriously wrong, Cooper was the place I needed to be. I had read about them being part of the New Jersey Intensive Care Unit Collaborative, and had a feeling that I was headed to the ICU.”
The decision to come to Cooper was likely a decision that saved her life.
When Alicia arrived at the Cooper Emergency Department her body was failing her. Upon her arrival, doctors quickly began running tests and trying to stabilize her blood pressure. “I remember coming into the ED and meeting my nurse Tami. She was so attentive, and was determined to find out what was happening to me. I will never forget her,” reflects Alicia.
From blood tests, EKG’s, and multiple other tests, doctors could see Alicia’s organs were going into failure. Alicia also found out that she had lost her baby due to the severe infection her body was fighting. She would need to be transferred to the ICU immediately.
“I remember the doctors and nurses asking me all about my trip to the Caribbean and they even called to that local hospital to see if any forms of infection were prominent there at the time,” said Alicia.
Doctors discovered that Alicia had contracted typhoid fever from salmonella bacteria while on her vacation in the Caribbean; and she was in full septic shock. She was put on a ventilator for several days while antibiotics killed the bacteria, her cardiovascular system was supported with fluids to increase her circulating blood volume which had been depleted by the septic condition, and medications were given to keep her blood pressure up.
Severe sepsis, a toxic response of an infection that causes body organ failure, is one of the most deadly diseases. More than 30 percent of patients die from the disease. Severe sepsis causes the blood pressure to drop and attacks the organs which often begin to shut down, leaving patients on respirators and machines to control their life organs. There are greater than 750,000 estimated cases of severe sepsis a year in the United States with an estimated 400,000 ICU admissions.
Her husband sat by her side, unable to comprehend that his vibrant wife was at risk for losing her life. He was approached by r. Phillip Dellinger, MD, Head of Critical Care Medicine at Cooper, about a new clinical trial for sepsis patients. The EUPHRATES trial would take Alicia’s blood and transfuse it through a dialysis device that would remove endotoxins, the most prominent toxin known by researchers to cause the inflammatory response of the body seen in septic shock and always associated with typhoid fever. The hope by researchers is that by removing these endotoxins the blood will be purified back into the blood stream, allowing the body to recover.
After careful consideration, Daniel agreed to the trial. “This was the turning point for my wife,” said Daniel. “She was not getting better and we knew we needed to try something.”
Alicia immediately began her sepsis dialysis. “It’s a blind trial, so we don’t know if Alicia really had the endotoxins removed, however, within hours, her color changed. Her blood pressure started to stabilize,” said Daniel. Two days later, Alicia started to wake up.
“I woke up in the ICU completely unable to understand that a week had vanished from my life, but that I was still here. They were cheering for me, the nurses and my family, I could hear them cheering for me as I woke up,” Alicia reflected.
“We didn’t know if she was going to come out of this, and if she did, would she still be Alicia,” said Daniel. “I even took a photo of her in the ICU just in case we lost her so our children would understand one day how sick mommy was and why they couldn’t go and see her while she was in the hospital.”
According to Dr. Dellinger, not all patients are as lucky as Alicia. With no approved method of treating the disease, research such as the EUPHRATES trial becomes most important for a better understanding of the disease and treatment. It’s a small step forward in saving the more 250,000 people who die every year from this disease.
A week later, Alicia was discharged from Cooper and was home with her family.
“This disease is life altering. I knew after going through this that I wanted to dedicate myself to helping others with severe sepsis.”
Today, two years after her battle with sepsis, Alicia is Administrative Director of Risk Management and Sepsis Performance Improvement for a hospital in Pennsylvania.
She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and manages her flair ups, but according to Alicia, “this is a minor inconvenience for simply being alive.”
Nearly two years after almost losing her life, Alicia and her husband were back at Cooper this May, but this time they shed tears of joy as they welcomed their son Daniel into the world.
“I’m blessed, truly blessed to have my family and my life,” Alicia says.