Jenn Ryan
Jenn Ryan
December 2, 2023 ·  5 min read

Man Who Lost Arms and Legs to Sepsis Calls for More Awareness and Training

Imagine waking up and finding that you no longer have arms or legs. Or part of your face.

This happened to Tom Ray in 1999 at the age of 38. Before this, the former corporate banker was opening up a business with his wife Nic, who was pregnant at the time, when he developed sepsis.

His sepsis is suspected to have been caused by a trip to the dentist where his gum was cut combined with a chest infection. The sepsis happened fast and led to vomiting and a fever.

But his diagnosis was delayed—by five hours. As a result, he spent months in a coma, during which time his wife gave birth to their second child.

Tom and Nic lost their house because of his inability to work. His recovery since then has been long, involving years of plastic surgery and learning to live with prosthetic limbs.

Tom isn’t alone. Every year over 50,000 people die from sepsis and many others are left with life-changing conditions as a result.

What Is Sepsis and What Are the Symptoms?

Sepsis is blood poisoning and is a severe response to an already existing infection. It happens fast and if not treated quickly, can be life-threatening.

Anyone can get sepsis, but people who have chronic health conditions (such as cancer, diabetes, or HIV), are older than 65, people with compromised immune systems, and children younger than one-year-old have a higher risk [1].

Symptoms include intense shivering, muscle pain, slurred speech, not urinating for more than a day, breathlessness, and discolored skin. Some people may also have low blood pressure. Symptoms in children may include lethargy, being cold to the touch, breathing very fast, and having a rash or a seizure.

The Sepsis Alliance has an acronym for quickly identifying symptoms of sepsis called TIME [2].

T: Temperature. The person’s body temperature may be too high or too low.

I: Infection. There is already a known infection in the body or the person is having signs or symptoms of an infection.

M: Mental Decline. The person may feel confused, disoriented, sleepy, or be difficult to wake. People who already have a cognitive disorder such as dementia may experience a worsening of their usual symptoms.

E: Extremely ill. The person may express extreme discomfort and say they feel like they are going to die.

The symptoms of sepsis should never be ignored. If you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from sepsis, seek emergency medical care immediately!

How Sepsis Occurs in the Body

Sepsis is the result of the body attempting to fight what’s usually an infection that has taken over the entire body.

The body will release chemicals designed to fight the infection into the bloodstream, which can lead to widespread inflammation that impairs blood flow. This lack of blood flow can prevent organs from getting the nutrients and oxygen they need to function.

In some cases, organs will start to fail, blood pressure will drop, and the patient will begin to go into septic shock. Once this happens, the patient can die. Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death in hospitals [3].

Bacteria are the most common cause of sepsis but unless the patient has a known infection, sometimes doctors can’t identify where the infection is coming from. Sepsis can also be the result of a medical procedure that can bring on a severe infection [3].

In Tom Ray’s case, he already had an existing infection and then had a medical procedure (the cut from the dentist’s office) on top of this which is suspected to have caused his sepsis.

Diagnosing and Treating Sepsis

Since the symptoms of sepsis are common among other medical conditions, sepsis is often not diagnosed in its early stages when treatment is most effective. The delay in diagnosing sepsis can mean the difference between life and death for many patients.

Doctors look for the symptoms mentioned in this article, and a blood test is usually conducted to check for a high white blood cell count, which is indicative that the body is attempting to fight something (bacteria, an infection, or another invader) off.

A blood test can also tell if abnormal bacteria are present. A CT scan may also tell if an infection is present in the body.

Sepsis is normally treated with antibiotics and with early diagnosis and correct treatment, people can make a full recovery. Patients who have sepsis will typically be treated in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the hospital. Some patients may even need surgery to remove an infection.

Unfortunately, as sepsis progresses, the aggressive immune response it launches can be difficult to get under control with medication.

People who survive sepsis, such as Tom Ray, may have long-term effects such as muscle pain, organ dysfunction, amputations, an impacted immune system, and even impacted cognitive function [4].

Raising Awareness of Sepsis—What Needs to Change to Identify Sepsis Faster?

Tom Ray is now 57 and spends his time doing motivational speaking and advocating for change in medical institutions where sepsis often isn’t recognized until it’s too late.

He and his wife Pippa Bagnall, a former nurse and NHS chief executive, formed Resilience and Co to raise awareness of this problem.

In 2016, Tom’s story was also made into a film called Starfish, and Tom has a book out by the same name. Tom along with his wife and Resilience and Co advocate for mandatory training for all staff who work in the healthcare field and health services. Pippa Bagnall says identifying sepsis should be simple, but staff simply don’t know what to look for or assume the symptoms are part of a different medical condition.

Pippa and Tom say all staff should be educated on what to look out for with sepsis—even an hour of online training for staff could mean the difference between life and death for patients with sepsis.

Tom says he’d rather not continue to relieve what he calls “the most difficult experience of my life” through his efforts, but he also says he wants to make a difference and speak for those who have already paid the ultimate price for the delay in their treatment.