Sepsis Kills Interior Designer After Going Undiagnosed

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The Law Of... diagnosing sepsis in time

A coroner has ruled that an interior designer who died after contracting sepsis wasn't given the 'best chance of survival' by the hospital she was admitted to.

The Law Of... diagnosing sepsis in time

Kay Barnes, a Senior Medical Negligence Solicitor at Simpson Millar, looks at the case and discusses why this potentially lethal condition requires fast diagnosis and treatment to improve the chances of survival.

Cheryl Cope, an interior designer from north London, was admitted to Whittington hospital on the outskirts of Haringey, after she collapsed having suffered flu-like symptoms for the previous 10 days. The hospital, overcrowded at the time with 320 patients where there was capacity for only 280, failed to provide a correct diagnosis of the patient's condition and Mrs Cope died the next morning.

Faulty Equipment

Further exacerbating the failure to spot her condition was an aborted attempt to conduct observation tests, cut short by a faulty blood pressure monitor. Additional efforts to repeat the tests in the hospital's urgent care centre were delayed after they also struggled to get blood pressure readings.

Had Mrs Cope's condition been spotted on admission, it could've significantly increased her chances of survival, with the coroner adding:

"I have accepted that there was a failure to prioritise Mrs Cope and this was due to the exceptional overcrowding at the hospital at the time of her admission […] I do find the inaction did not give Mrs Cope the best chance."

Multiple Organ Failure

Sepsis is a potentially fatal condition which occurs when the immune system overreacts to an injury or infection. It can lead to septic shock (where the blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels), reducing the blood supply to the brain, kidneys and other vital areas, resulting in multiple organ failure.

It can be diagnosed by careful monitoring of temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, and by analysis of blood tests, urine and tissue samples. If diagnosed early it can be treated with antibiotics, but once the vital organs have been affected hospitalisation is crucial, with admission to an intensive care unit often necessary.

You can find out more about sepsis in our dedicated FAQ.

Early Diagnosis Saves Lives

Early identification of the condition is the key to beating sepsis, with the oral antibiotic treatment usually leading to a full recovery with no long-term problems. If the condition is missed and becomes increasingly severe, attacking the vital organs and requiring hospitalisation, the chances of survival are dramatically reduced, with 4 in 10 dying as a result.

In Mrs Cope's case, the symptoms had been present and gradually worsening in the 10 days prior to her collapse.

Whether a diagnosis upon admission would've saved her life is impossible to say, but it would certainly not have lessened her chances of survival. If anything positive has come from her death, it is that Whittington hospital now has policy in place for recognising the symptoms and identifying sepsis at the earliest possible opportunity.

Kay comments:

"This tragic case demonstrates the increased need to ensure that all medical professionals are trained to recognise the signs of sepsis and act accordingly. Not only to ensure that more people don't fall victim to this life-threatening condition, but also to safeguard patient confidence in receiving the best level of care when they are admitted to hospital, with any potentially serious issues spotted and treated immediately."

"The fact that the hospital was stretched to breaking point at the time of Mrs Cope's admission highlights the wider issue of underfunding and the problems caused when the number of patients outstrips resources. The faulty equipment that played a part in this case might also have been spotted beforehand, had the proper checks and procedures been in place."

"Sepsis is more common than people think, with a real risk of death if left untreated – hence the need for all healthcare workers, from GPs to hospital staff, to be sufficiently trained to identify cases when they faced with them. Proper examination and prompt treatment is crucial; something that Mrs Cope, sadly, didn't receive."

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