I was at Coachella when I got the call.
“Alex? Can you hear me?”
Music from Father John Misty blared over my mom’s voice. “Sort of,” I said, curling up on the ground like an ailing arachnid and pressing my phone closer.
“I have something serious to tell you,” she said.
I knew that voice. It was the tone of a doctor who’s seen death up close. It was the sound of a wife and mother bearing unthinkable news. It was the noise from my nightmares reverberating into reality.
“Dad is in the ICU. He’s in serious condition.”
I bolted upright. “Is he stable?”
“He is at the moment, but the nurse said that these things are very touch and go.”
Touch and go? I felt sick. My arms trembled like pylons in an earthquake. “Should I come home?”
“I think you have to ask yourself if you want to be here to see him. He could die from this.”
The next hour was the worst of my life. I don’t remember large chunks of it. What I do remember haunts me. I remember running away from the stage repeating “Oh no oh no oh no.” I have a flash memory of dry heaving into a potted palm tree. I recall sobbing uncontrollably in the car. And as much as I’d like to, I can’t forget having a meltdown while packing my suitcase — crying, yelling, and pounding my fists on the ground like a five-year old.
My dad was dying of sepsis. And I felt helpless, 200 miles away at a concert in Palm Springs.
You might not have heard of sepsis. You’re not alone — almost half the population hasn’t either.
Sepsis is the body’s extreme reaction to an infection. The immune system essentially backfires and triggers inflammatory responses throughout the body. The infection can start anywhere — pneumonia, the skin, or a UTI. Sepsis is considered severe sepsis when organs exhibit signs of malfunctioning, like difficulty breathing or abnormally high heart rate. Septic shock takes hold when blood pressure drops to a critical low, even with treatment and intravenous fluids.
My dad had his hip replaced in a planned surgery two days before. Without anyone realizing, his incision got infected. When he returned home from the hospital, his condition worsened. He started vomiting, ran a fever, and became confused — thinking he was at the home in Toronto that we’d left decades ago.
Sepsis strikes with terrifying speed. According to the Sepsis Alliance, the mortality rate increases by 8% for every hour that it’s untreated. It’s now the №1 cause of death in hospitals — ahead of cancer, heart attack, and stroke. The fatality rate from septic shock is 50%. Flip a coin and a life spins with it.
My mom called an ambulance at noon. My dad was unconscious by dinner. His blood pressure dropped as the sky blackened. When I arrived at midnight, his chest was rising and falling like waves chopping on a shore. It felt like the tide could ebb at any moment.
When my dad was hospitalized, my mom called Dr. Jeffrey Fried. I know him as Jeff — father to my best friend Adam (and he knows me as Alex — destroyer of Fried family heirlooms). But most know him as Dr. Fried, the Director of Critical Care Education and Research at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. And while Adam and I played Xbox in their family room, Jeff quietly turned Cottage Hospital into a national leader in sepsis treatment.
Under his direction, the hospital installed protocols for sepsis and reduced the mortality rate of severe sepsis and septic shock by 66%. I’d always known I was lucky to call Santa Barbara home, but only now do I realize how lucky I was.
When my dad was admitted to Cottage Hospital, Jeff rushed to the ER and took control of his case, diagnosing sepsis and administering antibiotics. In my mom’s words, he was magnificent. His early action likely saved my dad’s life. Even though Jeff insists that I’m overblowing his role in the ordeal, many have assured me that I am not.
At 2 a.m., my dad woke up. He had no recollection of the past 24 hours. Instead, he had nightmares that he was the protagonist in Frank Kafka’s The Trial, not knowing where he was or how he got there. So much for a tranquil near-death experience.
A week later, my dad left the hospital. He recovered well. He joked that he was going to stand on the side of the street in his hospital gown, butt flapping in the breeze, waving his cane and yelling at cars for driving too fast.
Many aren’t so lucky. Life-saving treatments and protocols for sepsis are still not widespread. Diagnoses remain difficult. There are so many heartbreaking stories, like Rory Staunton, a 12-year-old boy from Queens, New York who was sent home from the hospital twice and lay dying on the family couch. When he was admitted a third time, it was too late. In the time you’ve been reading this, 60 people have died from sepsis.
In the United States, there are about 1.7 million sepsis cases each year. Worldwide, there are 26 million. It’s an epidemic — those numbers have doubled in less than a decade. As our population ages and bacteria develop drug resistances, it is all but assured that they will double again.
We still don’t fully understand why sepsis is so deadly. Since it costs U.S. hospitals $27 billion annually (another №1 leader, and growing 11% a year), you would think we’d prioritize learning more. But the antibiotic treatments have barely changed in decades and the U.S. spends 60 times more on research for Ebola and Zika than it does on sepsis.
As for me, my dad almost died before I even understood what sepsis was.
I urge you not to make that mistake. We need help to battle one of the world’s deadliest killers. We need widespread protocols for sepsis treatment. We need education. We need research. And if things don’t change, we’ll need a Hail Mary.
But what can you do? More than anything, you can learn to recognize the symptoms of sepsis. If a loved one has an infection, runs a high fever, becomes confused, starts vomiting, and loses blood pressure, don’t wait to seek medical attention. Please. Because your recognition could save a life.
Like my dad’s.