Dawn Nagel, a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., knew she was going to have a busy day, with more than a dozen patients showing signs of sepsis. They included a 61-year-old mechanic with diabetes. An elderly man recovering from pneumonia. A new mom whose white blood cell count had shot up after she gave birth.
Nagel is among a new breed of nurses devoted to caring for patients with sepsis, a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s attempt to fight an infection causes widespread inflammation. She has a clear mission: identify and treat those patients quickly to minimize their chance of death. Nagel administers antibiotics, draws blood for testing, gives fluids and closely monitors her charges — all on a very tight timetable.
“We are the last line of defense,” Nagel said. “We’re here to save lives. If we are not closely monitoring them, they might get sicker and go into organ failure before you know it.”
Sepsis is the leading cause of death in U.S. hospitals, according to Sepsis Alliance, a nationwide advocacy group based in San Diego. More than 1 million people get severe sepsis each year in the U.S, and up to 50 percent of them die from it. It is also one of the most expensive conditions for hospitals to treat, costing $24 billion annually.
Most hospitals in the U.S. have programs aimed at reducing sepsis, but few have designated sepsis nurses and coordinators like St. Joseph’s. That needs to change, said Tom Ahrens, who sits on the advisory board of Sepsis Alliance.
“From a clinical point of view, from a cost point of view, they make a huge impact,” said Ahrens, a research scientist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.