Rocking her newborn to sleep, Rachael was exhausted.
It was March 2015 and she had recently given birth to her first child, Rowan.
Rachael and her husband Aaron, now 30, were hardly sleeping, but their little boy was so perfect that they happily accepted the sleepless nights.
The new family began to settle into a routine, but 10 days after Rowan was born, Rachael started to feel strange.
‘One minute I was drenched in sweat, the next I was shivering with cold,’ she recalls.
‘I thought it was natural for new mums to experience hot and cold flushes, but lying in bed that night I was shaking uncontrollably.’
Rachael was still under the care of her midwife, so Aaron called the local delivery suite who advised her to go in for a check-up.
Aaron, a carpenter, drove Rachael to hospital, taking baby Rowan with them.
‘We arrived at midnight,’ says Rachael.
‘I was so exhausted, I felt like I was in a trance.
'My skin was pale and mottled and two midwives took me away to do tests.
'Because my oxygen levels were dropping, I needed to use breathing apparatus.
'I felt so disoriented.’
When one of the midwives told her she had an infection and needed antibiotics, dazed Rachael was taken to a room on the delivery ward and hooked up to an IV.
‘I was shaking uncontrollably again, but still managed to breast-feed Rowan with Aaron holding him for me,’ she remembers.
The next five days passed in a blur.
Rachael was closely monitored while her body was pumped with eight different types of antibiotics to fight the infection.
Gradually, her trance-like stupor began to lift and she was moved to another ward and given yet another dose of antibiotics.
Dazed, Rachael asked a nurse what had happened to her, and was astonished when the nurse gently explained that she was lucky to be alive after battling sepsis.
If she had waited just another 24 hours, she could have died.
‘It was the first time I’d ever heard sepsis mentioned and I was stunned,’ says Rachael.
‘After being discharged 24 hours later, the first thing I did was start researching the illness.’
Rachael learned her bout of sepsis was caused by the immune system’s overreaction to an infection or injury.
Instead of fighting the infection, her immune system had attacked her body’s organs and tissues.
If she hadn’t been diagnosed early on, her organs could have failed.
‘It didn’t make sense.
'I’d always been strong, fit and healthy,’ says Rachael.
‘I was shaken by how close I’d come to leaving my baby and husband forever.’
Rachael learned from The UK Sepsis Trust website that survivors also grappled with Post Sepsis Syndrome (PSS), which could leave them feeling exhausted, anxious and depressed.
Unfortunately, there was no treatment.
‘I felt tired, I was afraid I was failing Rowan as a mother,’ says Rachael.
‘I had faced death without even realising it, which was a lot to deal with.
'I retreated into myself, and worried I was being a burden.’
Thankfully, Aaron was amazing and Rachael’s parents, Mark and Linda, also helped with Rowan.
Eight months later, she started to feel like herself again and the family went on holiday to the Lake District.
‘The holiday helped me come to terms with what had happened and made me realise how lucky I was,’ she says.
‘Sepsis is often confused with gastroenteritis or flu, and the symptoms can show up differently – I was fortunate my nurses had immediately known what was wrong.
'I had been saved by an early diagnosis and I wanted to help others.’
Rachael decided to raise awareness for The UK Sepsis Trust, and began to plan a sponsored hike in the Brecon Beacons.
But in October 2016, a year and a half after her first diagnosis, she began feeling short of breath and her temperature fluctuated.
Knowing that there was a risk of recurrence with sepsis, she put 18-month-old Rowan down for a nap and waited for Aaron to come home.
‘I didn’t want to put Rowan through another trip to A&E, so I insisted on going to the hospital alone,’ she says.
‘Aaron planned to follow later, but things deteriorated rapidly.
'I felt so poorly and powerless.
'I knew my life was at risk and I was terrified.
'The doctors reviewed my medical records and I was given a bed in the acute medical unit, but things weren’t moving quickly enough.
'I pleaded with them to start treatment.’
Rachael lost consciousness and was hooked up to IV antibiotics again.
‘When I came round, all I could think about was Rowan.
'I had to keep fighting for my little boy,’ she says.
‘I still had a very high temperature of 41ºC and my doctors said I might need to be placed in an induced coma while they tried to stabilise me.
'Fortunately, they regulated my temperature by wrapping me in ice, then putting a heat blanket over the top.
'I begged the nurses not to let me die.
‘I couldn’t believe this was happening again.
'I was confined to my bed, receiving the same treatment as before.
'Aaron brought Rowan to visit, but he was too scared to come near me because I was hooked up to wires, looking so unwell and not myself.’
After four days of treatment, Rachael cried tears of relief as doctors managed to control the sepsis.
‘I thought about all the people who hadn’t been as lucky – either they’d lost limbs to sepsis or gone into septic shock.’
Rachael found out tonsillitis had caused her sepsis, as her weakened immune system had been unable to fight the common infection.
‘Outwardly I looked OK, but inside I was suffering.
'I struggled with muscle weakness and fatigue and had to take time off from my job as an NHS support worker,’ she says.
‘My life had been turned upside down and I was fearful of getting ill again.’
Luckily, a kind nurse from The UK Sepsis Trust helped Rachael process her fears and feel less alone, telling her it was normal to feel sad and not suffer in silence.
Gradually, Rachael built up strength and recovered emotionally and physically.
In June 2017, she and Aaron completed a 25km trek for The UK Sepsis Trust, raising more than £700.
‘I was ready to take on the world again, but sadly in April this year I was struck down by sepsis for a third time, she says.
‘I told Rowan that Mummy had a bug and needed help from the hospital to remove it from her body.
'I was 14 weeks’ pregnant with my second baby and, because I had flu, I was quarantined for six days.
‘I came out the other side again but I hope this is the last time I have to face this battle.
'I’m still recovering and I’ve experienced some hair loss, which is another effect of PSS.’
Rachael wanted to give something back and to let others know help is available and, since November 2017, she’s been working for the NHS 111 Service hoping to help others spot the early symptoms.
It’s been a tough few years for Rachael, but things are now looking up.
‘Our baby is due in October and Rowan is starting school.
'I’m looking to the future and I don’t want to miss a moment with my beautiful children,’ she says.
‘I’m so grateful to be a survivor.’
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