On a Tuesday morning in 2015, mother-of-two Korina Valentine went to her local GP after having fallen unwell a day earlier. She was vomiting, and struggling to walk, but the doctor sent her home with suspected gastro to rest up.
Overnight, her condition drastically deteriorated, and in the morning her husband Daniel, 31, rushed her straight to the emergency room. Little did they know that she wouldn’t leave hospital for another 10 months.
Korina, now aged 30, had contracted sepsis, a deadly infection – commonly referred to as blood poisoning – which occurs when the body’s response to infection injures tissues and organs.
By Thursday, she was in a coma. Four months later, she woke up to discover both of her arms and legs had been amputated.
“I was healthy and enjoying life as a mum,” Korina said. “I had no idea what sepsis was until it nearly killed me.”
That year, the Southern Highlands, NSW, mum became one of the 18,000 Australians who are diagnosed with sepsis annually. It’s a disease that kills about 5000 people each year – more than the national road toll, which was 1225 in 2017. And of those that survive sepsis, half are left with a disability or a lifelong impairment.
Korina considers herself one of the lucky ones, having survived the ordeal, but that didn't make it any less terrifying for her and her young family.
Only three days after Korina first visited the GP, she went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced clinically dead for 40 minutes. Daniel said he had been warned she would probably lose fingers and toes, but not full limbs. The doctors didn't know just how badly the necrotic tissue had spread until they began surgery.
"It was a dramatic time. Even though it was four months, it all happened so quickly, it felt like two weeks," Daniel told Mamamia. "It was an emotional roller coaster."
When Korina woke up, she said she had accepted what had happened. All she wanted was to get home to her children, Hayden, six, and Amelia, three. She was just relieved to be alive and see her son and daughter grow up.
Three years on, and Korina is backing calls from experts for national action to address the illness. A report released yesterday by the George Institute for Global Health states that sepsis treatment across Australia's health system is far too fragmented, resulting in a lack of understanding from healthcare workers and a poor level of public awareness.
In 2016, a national awareness survey found 60 per cent of Australians had not heard of sepsis, and only 14 per cent could name one of its symptoms.
It's an astonishing number for what is such a life-threatening illness - one that's earned it the title Australia's "silent killer". And Professor Simon Finfer is one of the doctors fighting to change this.
Prof Finfer, a member of the George Institute and director of the Australian Sepsis Network, told Mamamia the reason so few Australians had heard of the disease was because it was so arbitrarily dispersed throughout the medical system. Sepsis can arise from illnesses such as pneumonia or urinary tract infections, meaning people tend to talk about the original infection, not sepsis.
But with 70 per cent of sepsis cases originating outside of hospital, Prof Finfer said it was crucial for the public to be more aware of the disease and its symptoms.
Common signs of the illness include fever, chills, rapid breathing, high heart rate, rashes, and confusion. Many of these symptoms are present in other, more well-known conditions, making it difficult to detect. But an early diagnosis can save a life.
"We need the public to be aware so they know when to seek urgent care," he said.
"Every hour that treatment of antibiotics is delayed, the chance of someone dying from sepsis is increase by four to eight per cent."
Parents, too, must be informed, as younger Australians are most at risk. More than 50 per cent of sepsis deaths in children occur within 24 hours.
On the flip side, Prof Finfer believes the healthcare system has a huge part play and is currently failing patients. He said the medical profession needed to raise the priority of sepsis to acknowledge how time-critical it is.
“Sepsis can be prevented and, in many cases, can be treated successfully. We need to ensure that when patients present with symptoms they receive the best care possible, and that treatment begins as quickly as possible," he said.
He said he'd heard of too many cases, like Korina's, where people were sent home by GPs or hospitals during the early stages of sepsis, appearing to have the flu or another infection. He said it was essential that patients were told to return to seek medical attention if symptoms worsened.
"It's tragic and that's why we're doing what we're doing to try to stop these things happening," Dr Finfer said.
Since Korina's illness, Daniel has had to quit his job in sales to become his wife's full-time carer. Korina, meanwhile, has had to postpone her aspirations of becoming a teacher's aide. Instead, they have been busy channelling their efforts into their new charity, Reaching 4 Korina, to raise awareness of sepsis and help other survivors.
"It's not getting the attention it should," Daniel said.
Korina agreed. "It’s essential that more people are made aware of the symptoms so they seek help earlier. But, just as vitally we need to ensure that our GPs, hospitals and its staff are equipped to recognise sepsis early and start treatment as soon as possible," she said.
The report, Stopping Sepsis, sets out a national action plan with four key recommendations, including establishing a national public awareness campaign; providing more community and peer support services for victims; implementing a national clinical standard for sepsis detection and treatment; and, setting up a national sepsis body to drive the campaign and coordinate research.
To support Korina Valentine's cause, please visit Reaching 4 Korina.
For more information on sepsis, visit the Australian Sepsis Network.
LISTEN: What the mother of a sick child in hospital wants you to know.