I’m Caitlin Alsop (aka @comatoconfidence), a sepsis survivor from Australia. I share my story to thank doctors and nurses for saving my life, bring recognition to all healthcare workers and raise sepsis awareness. I was terrified of hospitals and ironically, it was there that I faced the biggest fight of my life, met my true heroes and in nearly losing my tongue, gained a whole new voice and cause for something I previously knew nothing about. 

The scars of survival on my neck that saved my life

At 23, after dinner with a friend, following what I had thought was a ‘common cold’ and numerous local doctor visits; I was home alone, exhausted and felt like I had bitten my tongue. Not even an hour later; my tongue swelled, started to block my airway and left me speechless. Unable to call for help or speak – I texted my family and thankfully, they raced me to the local hospital.  

“45 minutes and you’ll be out” we were told by the kind staff at the hospital who rushed me through triage, suspecting anaphylaxis. I don’t blame them – all symptoms pointed to this as I had a swollen tongue, difficulty swallowing and inflammation. They gave me adrenaline and a steroid…but my blood pressure completely dropped, breathing worsened and a rash spread rapidly over my body (as seen below). The local hospital tried everything they could, but hadn’t seen this before and decided on an emergency ambulance transfer to a bigger hospital. 

When I arrived; there were nearly 20 doctors and specialists waiting for me and my mystery condition. They transferred me to Intensive Care, comatosed and ventilated me for 9 days. I remained a medical mystery as doctors raced against time to save my life. I had scans, tests and infectious disease specialists as the rash spread and burnt my chest and face, I swelled and my tongue went black. The rare diagnosis was Ludwig’s Angina from an unknown wisdom tooth infection in my jaw that had led to “severe sepsis”. I had no pain, good oral hygiene and no other symptoms- but this wisdom tooth nearly cost me my life within only a few hours! 

Comatosed as my mystery red rash rapidly spread and tongue blackened

My family was told to prepare for the worst as the infection swelling started to crush my jugular vein and there was concern for my heart and brain circulation, but amputating my blackened tongue was considered too risky. Thankfully, doctors saved my life by surgically removing the infected tooth, inserting 16 neck drains to relieve the pressure (scars below) and putting me on heavy dose IV antibiotics to fight the infection. 

After 9 days in a coma; weak and disoriented, I felt like the luckiest person to be alive. I learnt to re-walk and was released from hospital after nearly 2 weeks, with ongoing follow up appointments for my surgery and follow ups with my GP. I’m so thankful to be here and determined to make a difference in the world, give back to healthcare workers and change sepsis. 

I’m always asked about my experience and what we can learn to improve. Whilst I am incredibly thankful for our system; we should focus on education and after-care. A key to surviving sepsis is always early recognition and treatment. Sepsis needs to be more known within the public and I thank organisations such as the Australian Sepsis Network, Sepsis Alliance and World Sepsis Day for helping to raise awareness. I have noticed our local hospital now has more signage about sepsis and I work with incredible people to raise public awareness.

I always knew that I could contact the hospital if I needed anything but wish I had known that it was sepsis and learnt more about recognising the signs and after-effects of sepsis such as the foggy brain and extreme tiredness and other adjustments. It all seemed so straight-forward in the hospital but learning the after-wound care to prevent an infection with open scars and finding the medication from a pharmacy proved challenging. After going through such a traumatic event, it was good to be able to connect with groups on Facebook and speak about sepsis and Ludwig’s Angina.    

When sharing my story with other sepsis survivors around the world, I feel so thankful to have been treated in a major city of Australia and to have been treated with MediCare. I was quickly treated in emergency and then transferred to a larger hospital only 20 minutes away by ambulance, where so many dedicated specialists worked to save my life. I fear that if I had been in another country or region; I may not have been so lucky. My overall care was to the highest standard and my family even told me stories of how nurses braided my hair while I was in a coma and they were kept comfortable and constantly updated as every effort was put into saving my life. 

I felt so blessed to have been surrounded by such caring, beautiful people. After I woke, nurses were so friendly and non-judgemental of helping me go to the bathroom and assisting me to walk. Even after returning home and experiencing side effects; the nurses hotline and ER nurses went out of their way to listen to me and care for me as I adjusted to my new life – even providing extra medical supplies and explaining the effects of the medication late at night after days of little to no sleep.

It is due to such kind, caring staff that not only saved my life but treated me with such respect that I was able to not only overcome my fear of hospitals but work with allied health professionals and raise awareness. I now tell people who are worried about seeking help that it is one of the safest places you can be because you are surrounded by people who dedicate their lives to caring. To anyone reading this; please don’t wait until it’s almost too late like I did and to all our healthcare professionals, thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

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