When an Infection Turns Life-threatening

Area Businessman Saved from Deadly Sepsis Infection

A fast-moving infection is serious enough. But when it invades the bloodstream, it can lead to sepsis, a potentially fatal inflammatory response. Soon after Andover businessman Hooks Johnston, Jr., arrived in the Lahey Emergency Department, he exhibited signs of the life-threatening condition.

“I was at work when an associate told me my cheek was swollen and red,” Johnston said of that day three years ago. “I had cut myself shaving that morning and realized my cheek felt warm.” He emailed a photograph of his cheek to John Przybylski, MD, his primary care physician, who advised him to come to the hospital immediately.

Przybylski walked Mr. Johnston and his wife, Susan, to the ED. “By the time we got there, I realized I felt dizzy and feverish and asked if I could lie down somewhere,” Johnston said. “A physician came and took blood samples, but they didn’t wait to find out what kind of infection I had. They put in four intravenous lines—two in each arm—and began administering antibiotics and fluids. They pumped everything possible into me. I know they were worried about the infection reaching my eyes or brain.”

The team was also worried about his plummeting blood pressure. “That is a red flag for sepsis,” said James Dargin, MD, a critical care specialist and member of the large team who treated Johnston in the ED that day. When aggressive treatment with fluids failed to raise his blood pressure, Dargin inserted a central line catheter into a vein in Johnston’s neck to administer medication.

“Timing matters,” Dargin noted. “On average, one in three patients with sepsis will not survive.” Sepsis kills by causing the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys to fail.

“I spent a couple of days in the Intensive Care Unit, where I had my own nurse assigned to me,” said Johnston. “Once my blood pressure was under control, they moved me to the inpatient floor for a few more days. Within a week, I was home again and back to normal.”

He was told that the infection that led to sepsis was erysipelas, a bacterial infection in the upper layer of skin that is similar to the one that causes strep throat. “If Mr. Johnston had waited and come in the following day, I doubt he would be alive,” said Dargin.

Johnston is well aware of two things: that he was fortunate that day, and that the Lahey team provided him with extraordinary care. He and his wife showed their gratitude by making a generous gift that will name a patient treatment room in the new ED.

“When I think about the care and attention I received, first in the ED and then in the ICU — all those doctors and nurses and all the technology that was used — it was magnificent,” he said. “I saw how undersized the current ED is. We stepped forward with a gift because I believe it’s up to those who are able to give to do so.

“Lahey’s a great place, and they’ve been good to me.”