Surviving Sepsis

UC Medical Center patient, Andrea Goheen, returned to the hospital to reunite with the care team that saved her life from deadly sepsis.

By Jackie Mulay

In a break room behind the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, or MICU, Andrea Goheen spotted nurse Meagan Blasch and burst into tears, pulling her into a heartfelt embrace.

“I wanted to see you for so long. I think about you every day,” Andrea exclaimed. “I always remember you being there, whipping that hair, girl,” Andrea joked.

Just six months ago, to the day, Andrea was critically ill, in a coma and fighting for her life. Meagan— along with nurses David Wilson, Barbara Smith and Angela Trigg—was part of the care team that saved Andrea’s life during her stay at UC Medical Center. One-week post-partum after a delivery in a hospital near her home in Milford, Andrea was suffering from an infection that had quickly become septic.

It all began with what Andrea thought was a terrible virus. Around just two days after giving birth to her daughter, Andrea felt run down, like she had the flu.

“I just thought I had a cold or that maybe I had [lactation] mastitis because my chest was hurting,” Andrea recalled. “So I waited around for days, and I even went to dinner on Saturday night with my fiancé. But I was dying, and I didn’t know it.”

Over the next few days, Andrea’s condition continued to rapidly worsen. One of the final symptoms that made Andrea realize that something was seriously wrong was an intense burning sensation in her leg.

“It felt like fire was inside of every vein inside my leg,” she describes. “It felt like someone was lighting a match inside my leg.”

“I went to bed Sunday night, and by three or four in the morning, I called the on-call line at my OB office and that’s when I said to her, ‘Something is wrong with me. I’ve never felt so sick in my life. I feel like I’m dying.’”

The person on-call advised Andrea to come into the emergency room immediately if she felt fearful about her condition. If she didn’t want to come in at that moment, she could wait for a few hours and come into the office when it opened.

“So that’s what I did. I took a shower, I calmed down, and I went back to sleep for a little while. I went to my OB office before 9 a.m.,” Andrea said. “I’d been with that practice for 15 years—they delivered all my babies, and I trust them fully.”

Andrea drove herself to her obstetrics and gynecology office. But when she got out of her car, her leg, which had been hurting her previously, couldn’t support her full weight.

“It was only a 30-minute drive, but when I got out of the car my leg had deteriorated so quickly and so badly that I was limping,” she said.

Andrea vaguely remembers speaking with a doctor at the office but describes starting to feel fuzzy.

“I remember her saying, ‘You’re right—something is wrong, but I don’t think it’s obstetrics.’”

The office staff sent her to the emergency room immediately, fearing a blood clot.

“I went downhill real fast. And the next thing I remember is waking up in the ICU [at the hospital near her obstetrics and gynecology office],” Andrea said.

Half-delirious, Andrea made a post to Facebook that she doesn’t even remember making, saying that she was suffering from liver failure.

But her emergency medicine doctor recognized her symptoms as toxic-shock syndrome right away, having just completed a research paper on it. And he recommended that they take her to UC Medical Center immediately.

Andrea’s family recalls the doctor asserting that taking her to UC was “the only thing that’s going to save her.”

Her family assumed the hospital had called an ambulance to transport Andrea to UC Health, but the doctor, feeling that Andrea was already on borrowed time, had sent for the helicopter.

Air care crew transported her to UC Medical Center on Tuesday night.

Her flight from the emergency department to UC Medical Center was terrifying, Andrea said. Already a nervous flyer, Andrea describes knowing something was terribly wrong. However, she distinctly remembers the care of her flight nurse, who stayed by her side and offered her assurance throughout the flight. She promised Andrea that she would see her flight nurse’s face until she got to the hospital safely and that she wouldn’t leave Andrea’s side.

Upon landing, Andrea said she felt a sense of relief to be at a UC Health hospital.

“As soon as we landed, I remember relaxing because I knew I was here,” Andrea said.

Andrea wasn’t alone in this feeling. Her fiancé rushed to UC Medical Center with Andrea’s father as she was airlifted to the hospital. The moment her fiancé, Branden Dunn, walked through UC Health doors, he felt hope—hope that would carry them through the harrowing journey to Andrea’s recovery.

What followed was a hazy hospital stay in which Andrea was mostly unconscious and on life support, as her care team fought hard to help save her life.

Kevin Dell, MD, a hospital medicine physician, discovered that Andrea was critically ill due to a complication from an infection that had become septic before she had arrived at UC Medical Center. The infection was a strain of streptococcal toxic-shock syndrome (TSS), which became septic, spreading throughout her body and eventually, settling in her left leg. This explains the pain Andrea felt in her leg before being admitted to UC Medical Center.

Once the infection had become septic, it seeded in her leg and became necrotic, eating away at her leg tissue from the inside out. Today, Andrea’s leg has nearly completely healed, but she will have scarring for the rest of her life because of the infection.

TSS doesn’t take much to become devastating, as it did in Andrea’s case. “All it takes is a bit of seeding and it can quickly multiply,” explained Dr. Dell.

“Everything I read said I should have died,” Andrea said.

Meagan agreed that Andrea beat the odds.

“The fact that she survived is not common,” Meagan said.

Andrea doesn’t remember much of her time in the MICU, but many people in her care team have told her that during her stay, she may very well have been one of the sickest people in the state of Ohio.

“The aftermath and the ripple effect is insane,” Andrea said.

Since her release from the hospital, Andrea has been seeing a therapist to help her process her terrifying experience. Her counselor has told her that she has post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from her experience—another side of Andrea’s recovery.

Her 7-month-old baby recently suffered from a double ear infection, and though she has been through ear infections with her other children, this one felt different and scarier to Andrea after her experience.

“Any infection can become septic, and I just think, is this the new me?” Andrea said.

Andrea’s recovery process—physically and emotionally—has been challenging, but she hopes that her story can help others. Whether it’s raising awareness about sepsis or encouraging people to take their illnesses more seriously, Andrea wants the world to learn from her story.

“I will forever be relentless in sharing and raising awareness,” she explained. “If I can help one person not experience what my family has gone through, then it wasn’t for nothing. And it feels like it had a purpose.”

Andrea’s OB/GYN, who kept up with her progress in the ICU at UC Medical Center, believes that if Andrea had gone anywhere else but UC Health, she would not have made it through.

“UC Health is so much bigger than just a hospital. It’s people that care and stay with you on your journey from start to finish. And they don’t give up. And now I’ll never let my family go anywhere else.”

Just six months later, Andrea was able to bring her bouncing, happy baby girl with her to her care team reunion.

“Their profound impact on my recovery is immeasurable,” Andrea said of her care team.

And though still bandaged as her leg heals, Andrea is celebrating her second chance at life.

 

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