In early April 2013, David Carson awoke with a sore throat. “Nothing to write home about,” he decided, and went off to work. Carson, then 61, was a trainer and mentoring consultant originally from Scotland, now living in Northamptonshire. By the weekend, he says, “I began to feel as if I was getting the flu. My wife, a nurse, said we should perhaps call the doctor, but I told her I’d be fine”.
He wasn’t fine. A few days later, he agreed to call a doctor, to whom he attempted to convey his symptoms as best as a man that doesn’t like to cause a fuss can. The doctor told him to take some paracetamol and go to bed, and that they would reconvene in the morning. There wasn’t any paracetamol in the house, so his wife went out to get some. “And by the time she got back, I was in a bad way,” he says.
Within six hours of that initial phone call to his doctor, Carson was on a life-support machine. “While I was in the coma, the consultant said to my wife that I was the sickest person in the hospital, with the least chance of survival.” His wife and their two grown-up sons were distraught as the hospital staff attempted to prepare them for the worst.
Although he didn’t know it yet, David Carson was suffering from sepsis, a life-threatening condition that arises when the body responds abnormally to infection. If not treated quickly, the end result is multiple organ failure. Fifty percent of cases, in both adults and children, develop after a bout of pneumonia, but it can also follow a urinary tract infection, a burst bowel – or even an insect bite. The TV presenter Gloria Hunniford contracted sepsis after cutting herself with a kitchen knife.
If spotted early enough, the disease is easily treatable with antibiotics – but spotting it early enough is the problem. It isn’t always easy to, in part because so many of us are still ignorant of the condition. It nevertheless affects a great many: more than 150,000 people a year in the UK alone, killing some 44,000. This figure is higher than those for prostate, bowel and breast cancer combined.
“If someone believes they might be suffering from sepsis, then the clock is ticking,” says Dr Ron Daniels, a full-time NHS consultant in critical care and also the chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust. “They have to act fast. If we took 100 people who all had the condition, about 85 to 90 per cent of them would, with early intervention, probably avoid having to go into intensive care altogether, and could be treated on a general ward quickly and effectively.”
But 10 to 15 per cent of that number, especially those that have a genetic susceptibility to it, would continue to develop multiple organ failure. “And, sadly, a proportion of those would die even with the very best care in the world,” says Dr Daniels. “We cannot pretend that we can save everyone from sepsis, but we do conservatively estimate that we can aim to save between 12,00 and 14,000 people in the UK every year simply by getting the basics right.”
To better combat it, sepsis needs a broader profile. This is now happening. Last month, the illness made headlines when an NHS England report concluded that both GPs and the country’s NHS out-of-hours helpline 111 failed to identify sepsis in a 12-month-old baby boy from Wales, who had died in 2014. The UK Sepsis Trust is now actively lobbying both the Government and the nation’s hospitals to raise awareness further still. It is a condition that can affect anyone anywhere, but children under the age of five and the over-65s are at more risk. Signs to watch out for include flu-like symptoms, lethargy, persistent rashes and, in babies, a dry nappy for more than 12 hours.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/22 New online test predicts skin cancer risk
Health experts have created a new online tool which can predict a person’s risk of developing a common form of skin cancer. The tool uses the results of a 10-question-quiz to estimate the chance of a person aged 40 or over of having non-melanoma skin cancers within three years. Factors including the age, gender, smoking status, skin colour, tanning ability, freckling tendency, and other aspects of medical history are covered by the quiz
2/22 Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment 'helps patients walk again'
A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) has enabled some patients to walk again by “rebooting” their immune systems. As part of a clinical trial at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital involving around 20 patients, scientists used stem cells to carry out a bone marrow transplant. The method known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) works by using chemotherapy to destroy the area of the immune system which causes MS
3/22 Dementia patients left without painkillers and handcuffed to bed
Dementia patients experience a ‘shocking’ variation in the quality of hospital care they receive across England, a charity has warned. Staff using excessive force and not giving dementia patients the correct pain medication were among the findings outlined in a new report by The Alzheimer’s Society, to coincide with the launch of Fix Dementia Care campaign
4/22 Cancer risk 'increased' by drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer per day
Drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer a day increases the risk of developing cancer, according to medical experts. New guidelines for alcohol consumption by the UK published by chief medical officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol has been linked to a range of different cancers. The evidence from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) overturns the oft-held view that a glass of red wine can have significant medical benefits for both men and women
5/22 Vaping 'no better' than smoking regular cigarettes
Vaping could be “no better” than smoking regular cigarettes and may be linked to cancer, scientists have found. The study which showed that vapour from e-cigarettes can damage or kill human cells was publsihed as the devices are to be rolled out by UK public health officials as an aid to quit smoking from 2016. An estimated 2.6 million people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes
6/22 Rat-bite fever
A teenager was hospitalised and left unable to move after she developed the rare rat-bite fever disease from her pet rodents which lived in her bedroom. The teenager, who has not been named, was taken to hospital after she complained of a pain in her right hip and lower back which later made her immobile, according to the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports. She suffered for two weeks with an intermittent fever, nausea and vomiting and had a pink rash on her hands and feet. The teenager, who had numerous pets including a dog, cat, horse and three pet rats, has since made a full recovery after undergoing a course of antibiotics. Blood tests showed that she was infected with for streptobacillus moniliformis – the most common cause of rat-bite fever. One of her three pet rats lay dead in her room for three weeks before her symptoms showed
7/22 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
8/22 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
9/22 Fat loss from pancreas 'can reverse' effects of type-2 diabetes
Less than half a teaspoon of fat is all that it takes to turn someone into a type-2 diabetic according to a study that could overturn conventional wisdom on a disease affecting nearly 3 million people in Britain. Researchers have found it is not so much the overall body fat that is important in determining the onset of type-2 diabetes but the small amount of fat deposited in the pancreas, the endocrine organ responsible for insulin production
10/22 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
11/22 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
12/22 Sugar tax
The Government should introduce a sugar tax to prevent an “obesity crisis” from crippling the NHS, a senior Conservative MP and former health minister has said. Dr Dan Poulter believes that the case for increased taxes on unhealthy sugary products was “increasingly compelling”
13/22 Cancer breakthrough offers new hope for survivors rendered infertile by chemotherapy
A potentially “phenomenal” scientific breakthrough has offered fresh hope to cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy. For the first time, researchers managed to restore ovaries in mice affected by chemotherapy so that they were able to have offspring. The scientists now plan to begin clinical trials to see if the technique, which involves the use of stem cells, will also work in humans by using umbilical cord material and possibly stem cells taken from human embryos, if regulators agree
14/22 Take this NHS test to find out if you have a cancerous mole
An interactive test could help flag up whether you should seek advice from a health professional for one of the most common types of cancer. The test is available on the NHS Choices website and reveals whether you are at risk from the disease and recommends if you should seek help. The mole self-assessment factors in elements such as complexion, the number of times you have been severely sunburnt and whether skin cancer runs in your family. It also quizzes you on the number of moles you have and whether there have been any changes in appearance regarding size, shape and colour
15/22 Health apps approved by NHS 'may put users at risk of identity theft'
Experts have warned that some apps do not adequately protect personal information
16/22 A watchdog has said that care visits must last longer
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said home help visits of less than 30 minutes were not acceptable unless part of a wider package of support
17/22 Pendle in Lancashire tops list of five most anxious places to live in the UK
Pendle in Lancashire has been named the most anxious place to live in the UK, while people living in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland have been found to be the happiest
18/22 Ketamine could be used as anti-depressant
Researchers at the University of Auckland said monitoring the effects of the drug on the brain has revealed neural pathways that could aid the development of fast-acting medications. Ketamine is a synthetic compound used as an off anaesthetic and analgesic drug, but is commonly used illegally as a hallucinogenic party drug. Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a senior researcher at the university and a member of the institution’s Centre for Brain Research, used the latest technology in brain imaging to investigate what mechanisms ketamine uses to be active in the human brain
19/22 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
20/22 The biggest cause of early death in the world is what you eat
Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed. A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar - was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol
21/22 Scientists develop blood test that estimates how quickly people age
Scientists believe it could be used to predict a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as the “youthfulness” of donated organs for transplant operations. The test measures the vitality of certain genes which the researchers believe is an accurate indication of a person’s “biological age”, which may be younger or older than their actual chronological age
22/22 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
Last autumn, the illness received some unexpected exposure during the Baftas, when Jason Watkins collected his award for Leading Actor. During his speech, he paid moving tribute to his two-year-old daughter, Maud, who had lost her life in 2011. Watkins didn’t make it explicitly clear how she died, but Google did, and in subsequent weeks Watkins was discussing his family’s tragedy on national television. He now campaigns for greater awareness through the UK Sepsis Trust.
“We set up this trust after I watched a 37-year-old man succumb to it, leaving me to tell his wife and children that he wouldn’t be coming home,” says Dr Daniels. “It hit me that something had to be done about this, because there had been opportunities to rescue him that were missed. We need an internal education programme, and also to talk to people externally. We need to make everyone aware because the earlier we catch it, the faster the recovery.”
David Carson eventually came out of his sepsis-induced coma after three long weeks. “When I woke up, I could barely move,” he says. “I felt like I was stuck to the bed. I could see that my legs were black. I couldn’t lift my hands up, but I noticed that my left hand was swollen enormously. The fingers were also black.”
The consultant explained that multiple organ failure had restricted blood flow, with dreadful results: he would have to have both legs amputated from below the knee. He was told that it was likely his fingers would self-amputate, but they didn’t, and he suffered with them for another year before the tops of three fingers from each hand were surgically removed.
In the space of just a few weeks, his life had changed irrevocably. He now had poor feeling in his fingers, and everyday routines such as tying shoelaces became problematic. Worse was to come. After being discharged from hospital, he failed a medical, which meant he was unable to return to work, and because their house was not sufficiently wheelchair-friendly, they had to sell their family house and move.
The psychological effects were considerable. “I had to have about a year’s worth of counselling,” he says, his voice breaking, “but it helped me a lot to talk about things. What happened has rocked me, and knocked my confidence. It’s simple things such as looking in the mirror when you get dressed in the morning and being reminded again that your body image has changed so much. It’s quite a shock, still.”
Over the past year, Carson has been working with the trust in a voluntary capacity, speaking about his experiences. He has talked to police officers about overcoming adversity, and also visited schools. “I didn’t think 13-year-old kids would be very interested, but they really engaged,” he says.
“I never really pushed myself to go and talk to people, but they asked me to do it. They said I was an inspiration because I was up and about, doing things. But I didn’t really have a choice, did I?”
In his previous life, he had also been a drummer in his local church group. He had had to stop after his illness, but a friend has recently helped to modify his kit, and he is back playing again.
“It’s good for me,” he says. “I always liked playing the drums. I’m glad I still can.”