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Life After Sepsis

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Lou DeGruy III’s energy is infectious. Talk to the 75-year-old for five minutes and you’ll find yourself with a smile on your face. That’s the effect he has on people.

He enjoys sharing that upbeat spirit. Truthfully, he’s had a desire to positively influence and help others for as long as he can remember. He did it during six years in the United States Air Force. He did it professionally throughout his career in security, first as a security project manager for the IRS and later with FedEx corporate security.

He always puts other people’s interests, happiness and safety ahead of his own. But on the morning of February 25, 2010, he was the one who needed help. 

DeGruy woke up at 2:00 a.m. in his home in Collierville, Tennessee, USA. He was vomiting, had diarrhea and was extremely cold. His wife Carmen put seven blankets on him but they did nothing. He continued shivering. Carmen drove him to their primary care physician, who performed an ECG and sent him to the hospital. 

DeGruy arrived in the emergency department dehydrated and fatigued. He spent the next six days in the intensive care unit (ICU) with acute pancreatitis and severe sepsis. Before arriving in the ICU, DeGruy had never heard of the latter condition. “I couldn’t even spell sepsis,” DeGruy said with a laugh. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines sepsis as “a complication caused by the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to infection, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death.” It is considered the leading cause of death from infection in the United States, and it affects millions of people nationwide each year. Often it can be challenging to diagnose sepsis because it stems from an infection, and potential symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions. If not treated immediately though, sepsis can be catastrophic.

“The infection is bad enough, but the body’s reaction to the infection often goes in the wrong direction,” said Mark E. Mikkelsen, MD, MSCE, FCCM, director of the medical ICU at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “That’s why we describe it as a life-threatening condition. Things become very dire, and that’s why, ultimately, the most important thing you can do is seek medical attention.”

DeGruy confessed that most details from his ICU stay were fuzzy, other than the fact he was “a pincushion” for blood tests every four hours. One thing he remembered was being impressed by his medical team’s honesty and transparency. “They kept me informed of what they suspected, possible treatments, updates every day plus a chalkboard with diagrams that explained what was going on,” DeGruy said. “This kept me at ease and informed. I had complete trust in my doctors’ ability. I felt I was getting the best treatment I could.” 

Once sepsis is identified, the key to recovery is addressing the infection, explained Mikkelsen. Sometimes that means antibiotics alone. Other times it means surgery as well. According to DeGruy, he relied—at least in part— on divine intervention. 

DeGruy doesn’t consider himself particularly spiritual—he calls himself a lazy believer—but on his fourth day in the ICU, his positivity faded. His prognosis was not great, and he was in excruciating pain. 

“I decided it was time for a chat with the Lord,” DeGruy said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, please take away this pain. I don’t know how much longer I can handle it. If you are telling me this is my time to go, go ahead and take me.’”

DeGruy had paused for what felt like minutes before speaking that last sentence. As soon as it came out of his mouth, though, he altered his prayer. “‘Lord,’” DeGruy said, “‘forget about that last statement. Just take away the pain!’”

The next time a nurse came into DeGruy’s room, he asked for the strongest painkiller available. He doesn’t know what the medicine was, but he was asleep within seconds. When he woke up 90 minutes later, the pain was gone, and it never returned. He was released from the hospital two days later.

The official diagnosis was that DeGruy’s gallbladder caused the infection, and he returned to the hospital seven days later to have it removed. 

Mikkelsen explained that the first few days—and even weeks—of recovery are critical for sepsis survivors to regain their pre-illness condition. In most instances, sepsis survivors find themselves weak with a variety of cognitive ailments. For many it is hard to fully comprehend what they went through and survived; that is why the transparency DeGruy experienced throughout his ICU stay was so valuable.

As for DeGruy’s recovery, it took time to recognize himself. Literally. DeGruy needed to renew his driver’s license soon after his hospital stay, and when he received his updated photo, he was convinced there was a mistake. He needed to be reassured it was in fact his portrait.

As the weeks turned into months, though, DeGruy returned to his old self. The biggest change in his lifestyle was his retirement from FedEx. Despite having left the workforce, he finds himself busier now than he was before retirement. He is an emergency medical technician with the Shelby County, Tennessee, Sheriff’s Office, a team member of the West Tennessee Critical Incident Stress Management Team and a Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care team member.

His primary goal in each position? To help others. When he’s not helping strangers, he’s focused on his family. He and Carmen have been married 55 years and have five children, 10 grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren. His family keeps him young and his spirit upbeat. Seven years after nearly losing his life, DeGruy is determined to enjoy every minute life gives him.

As for advice to other sepsis survivors or people currently battling the condition, his message is simple: “Believe in your medical team, believe in yourself and believe in your support system,” DeGruy says. “I share my story with anyone who wants to hear it because I want to prove there is life to be lived after sepsis.”​