You’ve probably never heard of sepsis. Meagan hadn’t. But, as her doctors would soon discover, that was what was killing her.
Sepsis is the body’s attempt to counter another infection that has moved into the bloodstream. The problem is, that massive, system-wide counterattack often proves more devastating than the original infection. Blood vessels become inflamed, and their cell walls leak fluid. The clotting system goes haywire, simultaneously causing bleeding and throwing clots. The resulting tissue and organ death makes sepsis one of the most dangerous threats in intensive care units: All told, it kills 250,000 Americans each year.
In Meagan’s case, the original infection had come in the form of a pimple. What she didn’t know is that this seemingly innocuous skin infection harbored dangerous Staphylococcus bacteria. Those bacteria eventually migrated to her lower back, where they formed a large, painful abscess below the skin.
When Meagan went to the hospital, physicians—suspecting her back pain was caused by meningitis—performed a spinal tap. In the process, they discovered an abscess, and the infection subsequently spread into her bloodstream. That’s when Meagan went septic.
“She’s dying! She’s not going to make it!”
Meagan’s mother knew death. Working at Midwest Regional Medical Center, Monica Parham saw it each day. Watching her daughter lying motionless, unconscious and hooked to a ventilator, she began to try to wrap her mind around the unthinkable. “I was losing my baby girl.”
As Parham kept a vigil by Meagan’s bedside, doctors approached her with a set of permits. We have a drug we think might help your daughter, they said.
Parham could scarcely process what they were saying. “I was too much of a basket case.” So Meagan’s father, Rex McLain, signed the forms. And in minutes, doctors began an IV drip of a drug called Xigris. It was, the doctors said, the last, best chance to save Meagan’s life.
For decades, sepsis had proven a notoriously tough medical riddle to solve: More than 20 experimental drugs had failed to show any benefit in treating it. But after a clinical trial found that Xigris reduced mortality among the most severe sepsis patients by 24 percent, the Food and Drug Administration gave the drug its seal of approval. The drug, a synthetic version of a human protein, has its roots in the work of OMRF’s Drs. Charles Esmon and Fletcher Taylor.