Georgia woman survives harrowing battle with sepsis

- The ordeal that forever changed Kim Steele's life, and nearly ended it, began quietly, with a nagging feeling something wasn't right. 

"I thought I was maybe sick, getting the flu, maybe," Steele says.

It was May 14, 2016. Steele, who is now 50, says her heart was racing, and she felt thirsty, feverish, and confused. Then, things really started to unravel.

"I got to where I couldn't breathe, I was having real trouble breathing," she remembers.

Rushed to Piedmont Henry Hospital's ER, she was now critically ill.

"With 30 minutes of when I got there, I coded the first time," Steele says.  "Then I coded again.  I was out 5 minutes they brought me back. I coded again, I was out 3 minutes."

Steele, who was quickly moved to the hospital's ICU, was in septic shock, the most severe and deadly form of sepsis.

"An infection invades your body," says intensivist Dr. Greg Evans, who treated Steele, "And, it's really the chaos, the chaotic way that your body responds."

Each year, about 1.5 million Americans develop sepsis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  More than 250,000 of them die. Dr. Evans says they talk about sepsis all the time in the medical community, how to spot it, and treat it quickly. But Kim Steele had never heard of sepsis, and Dr. Evans says few people know the warning signs.

"Number one is, do you have an infection?" Evans says.  "Do you have the symptoms of a urinary tract infection? Do you have a cut anywhere on your body that is looking worse?  Do you have a productive cough that is getting worse?"

Evans thinks pneumonia may have sent Kim spiraling.  Whatever it was, she was soon in a medically-induced coma, on a breathing machine, as Dr. Evans and his team pushed IV fluids, antibiotics, and medication, trying to save her.

"They told my family I had a less than 9% chance of surviving," Steele says. "But Piedmont Henry worked very hard, and did everything they could."

Kim Steele pulled through. But a combination of the sepsis and the medication had cut off the blood flow to her limbs, which were now turning blue, then black.

"And they told me I was going to lose my hands, and probably my feet," she remembers.
By June, a surgeon was amputating her hands.  By November, another was removing her legs below the knee. 

Steele found herself a quadruple amputee in a "very dark place."

"I got in such a deep depression, I didn't think I would be able to do anything again," she says.  "I thought my life was over.  I love to cook.  I love animals. I love to do things.  And I just thought it was over, and I'd never been able to do that again."

But, with intensive rehabilitation, Steele learned to walk on prosthetic limbs and to drive and cook with artificial hands. Today, she lives independently, with her dogs.

"I take care of my dogs, put them on their leashes take them for a walk," she says.

"If you have the mindset to be strong, work hard, you can do anything you put your mind to," she says.
Dr. Evans says he wasn't sure Kim Steele would make it through her ordeal, many patients don't.

That's why he's thrilled she's still here to tell her story.

"She's a sepsis survivor," he says.  "She truly is a survivor."

And Kim Steele is standing proud.

"Because looking back now, where I am today, I'm stronger now than I was back then," she says.

The CDC says there is no single symptom of sepsis, but it typically begins with an infection that can be in the lungs, kidneys, gut or on the skin.  It can cause confusion, shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate, fever, a clammy feeling, or even extreme pain. Sepsis, the CDC says, is a medical emergency. So, if you have an infection that seems to be worsening, Dr. Evans says, seek help and ask your doctor if you might have sepsis.

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