Surviving sepsis: young mother and caregivers raise awareness of ‘silent killer’

Woman in green dress and doctor in scrubs
Victoria Mugo and Dr. Michael Firstenberg, chief of cardiovascular surgery at affiliate The Medical Center of Aurora.
A mother smiles at her toddler while holding his hand

HCA Healthcare patient Victoria Mugo, pictured with son Alexander, prior to her sepsis hospitalization.

HCA Healthcare care teams quickly responded to save the life of a young mother whose body was under attack by sepsis – the body’s extreme response to an infection.

After coming close to succumbing to sepsis, Victoria underwent multiple limb amputations and is learning how to live and thrive in the face of her health hurdles. Her grateful heart and fighting spirit are an inspiration to us all. Read on for a special reunion between Victoria and the caregivers that intervened to save her life.

Early in January of 2019, 38-year-old Victoria Mugo was rushed to the emergency room at affiliate The Medical Center of Aurora during a dangerous bout of pneumonia. Unbeknownst to her, Victoria’s body was in a life-or-death battle against rapidly progressing sepsis.  Physicians realized immediately that they were against the clock, faced with the deadly reality of septic shock.

Sepsis and septic shock occur when the body responds in an aggressive, disproportionate way to the presence of infection. With sepsis, blood pressure and circulation is impaired and can lead to extreme inflammation, tissue death and severe organ failure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sepsis is responsible for nearly 270,000 deaths in the United States every year.

Woman in white and brown striped shirt. Headshot of Carolyn Golas.

Carolyn Golas, RN, sepsis coordinator at affiliate The Medical Center of Aurora

“You don’t get any sicker than Victoria was,” sepsis coordinator Carolyn Golas told CBS4 Denver.  “By the time Victoria’s condition had deteriorated to septic shock, her chances of survival were only around 20%,” adds Golas.

Victoria, an otherwise healthy mother, was in a precarious situation and one that required a swift response. Caregivers quickly recognized sepsis in Victoria, called a sepsis alert and immediately took action to re-oxygenate Victoria’s blood. She was put in a coma while focus was given to recovering her vital systems.

“We are fortunate to have technology such as ECMO that allowed us to support Victoria,” said Golas.

A woman in a hospital bed with her son

“Our ECMO program allowed us to pump and oxygenate her blood outside of her body while allowing her lungs to heal,” explains Golas. “This is much like when patients have open heart surgery and are on a bypass machine. Victoria was supported not only by ECMO buy was also on continuous dialysis that took over the function for her kidneys that were no longer working.”

Victoria’s life was saved in the midst of grave danger.

However, the complications were severe. As her body prioritized blood flow to vital organs, circulation to the extremities diminished. Tissue was dying quickly and necessitated amputation of both arms below the elbow and both legs below the knee.

Nurses that cared for Victoria during the initial phases of her illness when she was not able to interact were inspired by the love and support of her family by her side.  “We all knew that was part of her strength,” said Golas.

“I am not sitting in a corner feeling sorry for myself because I don’t have my arms or my legs, I’m walking now,” Victoria told CBS4 Denver reporter Kathy Walsh.

Woman with prosthetic legs walks down a hospital hallway

Credit: CBS4 Denver

Early detection and immediate intervention are critical

Given the severity and speed with which sepsis can attack the body, early detection and immediate intervention are critical to survival. Sepsis can be difficult to detect. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • High heart rate
  • Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold
  • Confused, sleepy difficult to rouse
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy, pale or discolored skin

“I have seen far too many patients who, by the time they come to our emergency department, their chances of survival have escalated and it is a challenge to save their lives,” says Golas. “Many of those that do survive, as Victoria knows all too well, have their lives changed forever.”

HCA Healthcare endeavors every day to improve human life and move healthcare forward in the face of threats like sepsis.

This commitment is what drove HCA Healthcare to develop SPOT (Sepsis Prediction and Optimization of Therapy). SPOT is an algorithm-based artificial intelligence that uses the data of more than 31 million annual patient care episodes to detect the presence of sepsis approximately 18 hours earlier than the best clinicians.

In the same way that Victoria’s caregivers identified her symptoms and called a sepsis alert, SPOT steps in to prompt the alert, but with unprecedented speed and precision. An estimated 8,000 lives have been saved in the last five years as a result of including SPOT with other clinical interventions. The skilled caregivers across HCA Healthcare know firsthand the importance of catching sepsis early, and an innovation like SPOT now comes alongside these nurses and physicians as an invaluable life-saving advancement.

As stated by the CDC, “Anyone can get an infection and almost any infection can lead to sepsis.” When it comes to a medical emergency as time-sensitive as sepsis, the sooner a patient seeks medical help, the better. The earlier sepsis can be detected with advanced systems like SPOT, the higher the chances of survival. Patients who are experiencing signs and symptoms of sepsis should seek medical help immediately. This may include fever, shortness of breath, clammy skin and pain or discomfort.

Grateful for life

Despite the difficult ordeal and the potentially devastating results, Victoria has not let her encounter with sepsis slow her down. Now walking with prosthetics, Victoria visits the hospital to thank physicians and nurses and to lead by example for her son what it looks like to never give up. Watch the reunion here. 

Her remarkable outlook and will to carry on keep her motivated.

This year, Victoria also participated in the Denver Sepsis Challenge 5K with her family and caregivers by her side.

Two women in hot pink t shirts pose before a 5K event

“I have been a critical care nurse for 45 years, but serving as the sepsis coordinator for the past five years for HCA Healthcare’s HealthONE has been the most rewarding of my career. I am proud to be one of many sepsis coordinators that supports our commitment to saving lives.” – Carolyn Golas, sepsis coordinator for affiliate The Medical Center of Aurora

A group of men and women raise their arms in victory during a 5K event

Victoria is also working with the hospital to coordinate a sepsis survivor group for HCA Healthcare patients in the Denver, Colorado area, raising awareness and bringing hope to others who have been affected by sepsis. The group will meet twice a month, starting this October.

Dr. Craig Lehrman at The Medical Center of Aurora’s Hand & Reconstructive Center of Colorado performed the surgery to amputate Victoria’s arms. Dr. Lehrman is a board certified surgeon who is specialized in all facets of plastic and reconstructive surgery including complex areas such as hand and microvascular surgery and was able to perform Victoria’s arm amputations using targeted muscle reinnervation technique. This technique allows for  more intuitive control of advanced prosthetic arms.

Victoria plans to learn to drive with her prosthetics and is passionately pursuing advancements in her career.

A female former hospital patient poses for a picture with her ICU team

Victoria reunited with her ICU team during Sepsis Awareness Month (September).

Reflecting on Victoria’s journey, Golas recalls just how remarkable Victoria’s strength was. “As the days and weeks went on and she began to improve, but then seeing her look at her own two hands knowing that she was going to lose them as well as her feet, she maintained the most amazing positive spirit and beautiful smile,” she says.

“We were all inspired! Victoria to me is truly the picture of our mission statement: Above all else, we are committed to the care and improvement of human life.”

A part of HCA Healthcare’s HealthONE healthcare system, The Medical Center of Aurora is the first community hospital in the Denver Metro area to receive a three-time Magnet designation for nursing excellence by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The Medical Center of Aurora is comprised of six campuses in Aurora and Centennial, Colo., including the Main Campus, located at Interstate 225 and Mississippi, the North Campus Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, Centennial Medical Plaza, Saddle Rock ER, Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital, Spalding Rehabilitation at P/SL, and a medical office building at Green Valley Ranch. The Main Campus facility is a Level II Trauma Center with Primary Stroke Certification and Chest Pain Center accreditation

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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