Don Smith remembers the moment he awoke in an intensive care unit after 13 days in a medically induced coma. His wife and daughter were at his bedside, and he thought it had been only a day since he arrived at the emergency room with foot pain.
Smith said his wife “slowly started filling me in” on the surgery, the coma, the ventilator. The throbbing in his foot had been a signal of a raging problem.
“When you hear someone say a person died of infection, that’s sepsis,” said Smith, 66, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who went to the ER shortly before Christmas 2017. Ultimately, he spent almost two months in the hospital and a rehab center following multiple surgeries to clear the infected tissue and, later, to remove seven toes.
Sepsis, the body’s extreme response to an infection, affects 1.7 million adults in the United States annually. It stems from fungal, viral, or bacterial infections, similar to what struck Madonna this year, although the singer never said whether she was diagnosed with sepsis. Treatment delays of even a few hours can undermine a patient’s chance of survival. Yet sepsis can be difficult to diagnose because some patients don’t present with common symptoms like fever, rapid heart rate, or confusion.
A Biden administration rule, finalized in August, ups the ante for hospitals, setting specific treatment metrics that must be met for all patients with suspected sepsis, which could help save some of the 350,000 adults who die of infections annually. Children, too, a …