A student teacher has revealed how she was left fighting for her life after her ‘winter cold’ turned out to be sepsis.
Jemma Butler, 20, from Burton Upon Trent, Staffordshire, was on a placement at a primary school when she started to feel a little under the weather but assumed it was a viral infection.
Within a week, she was unable to get out of bed and was shaking uncontrollably.
It took multiple trips to hospital before she was told she was suffering from sepsis – a life-threatening reaction to an infection.
Jemma Butler was left fighting for for her light after symptoms of a bad cold turned out to be sepsis. Pictured in September 2019 – pre-sepsis
After scans and tests, doctors discovered Jemma had Lemierre’s syndrome, a rare infection in the throat, which is believed to have led her to develop sepsis. Pictured in the hospital in 2019
‘I felt ill with what seemed to be a sore throat, and was given antibiotics for suspected tonsillitis but it was actually sepsis,’ Jemma said.
‘Many people have never heard of sepsis, or if they have, they are often confused about what it is, and what signs to look out for.
‘However, sepsis kills 48,000 people in the UK every year, which is more than breast, bowel and prostate cancer deaths combined. If it isn’t treated immediately, as a medical emergency, it can take someone’s life in under 24 hours.’
‘I feel extremely lucky to be alive.’
After calling 111, Jemma was told to go to A&E. When she arrived, her pulse was racing and her temperature was 41°C – symptoms associated with sepsis, but this was later dismissed. Pictured in January 2021
Back in November 2019, Jemma was in the first year of her degree at Durham University, which involved a placement at a primary school.
Like in many schools, bugs and viruses often went around so Jemma wasn’t shocked when she started to feel a little off.
She said: ‘I rested in bed, expecting to feel better within a couple of days.’
‘As I was in my first term of university and in a primary school setting some days on placement, I assumed my symptoms were the result of a viral infection and would disappear on their own.’
Jemma Butler with her parents and sisters. Jemma has initially been scared to tell her dad she might have sepsis due to his mother passing of the same condition
But within a week, her symptoms were ‘unbearable’ and she became more concerned.
She said: ‘I was unable to get out of bed and shower. My body was weak and I was unable to stand without my legs uncontrollably shaking.’
‘I slept with the window wide open, despite it being mid-November, to try and control my rocketing temperature and profound sweating. I knew something was seriously wrong and decided to seek help.’
After calling 111, Jemma was told to go to A&E. When she arrived, her pulse was racing and her temperature was 41°C – symptoms associated with sepsis, but this was later dismissed.
Jemma Butler in March 2021 – a year after she started losing her hair. Despite the hair loss, Jemma feels ‘lucky’ to be alive
She said: ‘The word “sepsis” was briefly mentioned to me at this point and the medical professionals said my observations needed to be monitored as they pointed to some of the “red flags” for sepsis.
‘I was aware of the term and I knew it was serious, as this is what my dad’s mum had died of when he was just aged four.
‘I felt extremely anxious, especially to tell my parents because I thought my dad would be extremely worried for me.’
After two paracetamol, her temperature came down and she was sent home with a course of antibiotics for a week.
Jemma Butler in July 2021 – the end of her second year at university. After building her strength, she was able to return to her university and teacher training in Durham
Although still unable to leave her bed, Jemma did start to improve a little.
With two weeks of the university term left, her parents and college welfare team made the decision that she would be unable to return to lectures and should travel back home to Staffordshire.
She said: ‘I had finished the course of antibiotics the hospital in Durham had given me, and although I felt slightly better, the worst was yet to come.
What is sepsis and how to spot the signs?
Sepsis occurs when the body reacts to an infection by attacking its own organs and tissues.
Some 44,000 people die from sepsis every year in the UK. Worldwide, someone dies from the condition every 3.5 seconds.
Sepsis has similar symptoms to flu, gastroenteritis and a chest infection.
- Slurred speech or confusion
- Extreme shivering or muscle pain
- Passing no urine in a day
- Severe breathlessness
- It feels like you are dying
- Skin mottled or discoloured
Symptoms in children are:
- Fast breathing
- Fits or convulsions
- Mottled, bluish or pale skin
- Rashes that do not fade when pressed
- Feeling abnormally cold
Sepsis is a leading cause of avoidable death killing 44,000 people each year
Under fives may be vomiting repeatedly, not feeding or not urinating for 12 hours.
Anyone can develop sepsis but it is most common in people who have recently had surgery, have a urinary catheter or have stayed in hospital for a long time.
Other at-risk people include those with weak immune systems, chemotherapy patients, pregnant women, the elderly and the very young.
Treatment varies depending on the site of the infection but involves antibiotics, IV fluids and oxygen, if necessary.
Source: UK Sepsis Trust and NHS Choices
‘Two days after arriving home, I severely deteriorated. I was unable to eat once again and I had developed a swelling on the right side of my jaw, which meant I was unable to open my mouth more than a couple of centimetres wide.
‘It was extremely debilitating and scary, as I felt I had lost control of my body.’
The pain became so severe, Jemma’s mum took her to A&E again at another hospital where she was diagnosed with lockjaw.
The next day, the pain in her jaw and throat was even worse and she tried speaking to her GP, who referred her to hospital again.
Jemma said: ‘As we were driving back home from the GPs to pick up a bag to take into hospital, I was violently sick.’
‘Upon arriving home, I was unable to stand again as I was so weak.’
‘I went into my parents’ room and lay on their bed. I was sweating profusely whilst also shivering. My skin was pale, mottled and clammy.’
‘My heart was pounding and I was finding it difficult to catch my breath.’
‘The most unbearable symptom, one of which I will never forget, was the overwhelming feeling that I was going to die.’
Jemma’s parents called for an ambulance and when paramedics arrived, they explained they believed she had sepsis and needed to be rushed to hospital.
In resus, doctors confirmed the diagnosis and she was immediately given antibiotics through a drip
She said: ‘The quick diagnosis of sepsis at this point alongside the antibiotics are undoubtedly what saved my life.’
‘The next part of my hospital journey becomes a blur as I was so ill I am unable to remember the details.’
‘My parents were by my side and are able to tell me what went on.’
After scans and tests, doctors discovered Jemma had Lemierre’s syndrome, a rare infection in the throat, which is believed to have led her to develop sepsis.
An ultrasound also showed signs of a clot in her neck, which luckily disappeared after Jemma was given blood thinners.
After 13 days in hospital, she was able to go home, but the sepsis had some long term effects,
She said: ‘It took a while to build back up my strength after being so severely ill but I was able to return to university the following January and return to my teacher training in Durham.’
‘Three months after leaving hospital, my hair started to fall out. At first, I thought this was strange and after having researched this, I realise it is a symptom of post sepsis syndrome that many sufferers go through after recovering.
‘Two years on, and my hair continues to fall out and grow back in a cycle. Each piece of hair that grows back reminds me how strong my body is to have gone through such trauma.’
‘Although my hair falling out has its own challenges for me personally, I remind myself of how many people die from Sepsis each year and how lucky I am to still be alive, losing my hair is a small price to pay.’