Sepsis Survivor Turned Advocate, Dr. Hillary Spangler

March 26, 2018

Dr. Hillary Spangler survived sepsis as a child. Then as a medical student, she assembled UNC Children’s Hospital’s first family sepsis initiative, which educated over 500 families on the signs and symptoms of sepsis.

On April 10th, Dr. Spangler will present Sepsis Recognition: Educating High Risk Patient Populations, a webinar in which she will share her experience and strategies for educating high risk sepsis patients and their families. To register for the webinar click here.

We caught-up with Dr. Spangler last week to discuss her survivor journey and upcoming webinar. Keep reading for her entire interview.

When you were 10 years old you had sepsis can you tell us about your experience?

I developed sepsis after having the flu, eventually growing group A strep bacteria. My family had not heard of “sepsis” before, but noticed I was more tired than normal after having the flu, with my symptoms lasting longer than 2 weeks. My parents decided to bring me to the hospital after noticing I was having trouble walking, making less urine, and had mottled skin.  I was taken to a local hospital where I was started on broad-spectrum antibiotics, eventually being sent to UNC Children’s for a more aggressive sepsis resuscitation.

I spent 1 week in the pediatric ICU, being treated for a bacterial infection and receiving supportive care for renal failure, a sequelae of sepsis. I don’t remember much of my ICU stay, but do remember the remainder of my month-long inpatient stay being filled with antibiotics and physical therapy.

Due to being bed-bound and the muscle breakdown that occurred during my illness, I was unable to walk without significant assistance.  I was eventually able to walk with a walker at the time of my hospital discharge and continued physical therapy as an outpatient.

I am very thankful for the support of my family and teachers, who allowed me to continue intensive outpatient physical therapy and play “catch-up” on my school work. This allowed me to return to school a few months after my illness.

I’m very blessed that my family was able to recognize that “something was wrong,” even though they did not know the signs and symptoms of sepsis at the time.

Was it your own experience with sepsis that inspired you to go to medical school?

Yes, very much so. After my experience, I had originally thought about going into physical therapy (they have an awesome job), eventually deciding to go into medicine. I’ve been given a lot in my lifetime, especially during my experience with sepsis, so when choosing a career path, I wanted to pick a vocation that I could return the favor. Now completing medical school and starting residency, I can’t imagine doing anything else. It has also been an honor to train at UNC, where I was treated for sepsis.

Can you tell us about the family sepsis initiative that you assembled? Why is it important to educated families about sepsis?

It has certainly been a team effort! The initial idea came from a pediatric ICU attending and fellow’s efforts to increase outpatient sepsis awareness, who initially formed a Family Sepsis Advisory Board (when I became involved) to help develop a brochure to educate families about the signs and symptoms of sepsis. We targeted this education at families with children in the Hematology-Oncology clinic, as they are highly at risk for sepsis. It is important for parents to be educated about sepsis, as they know their child the best, and sepsis can be subtle. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help families feel confident in using the word “sepsis” and hopefully decrease the time to antibiotic and fluid treatment.

What do you want families to know about sepsis?

That sepsis can affect anyone and everyone!  Always feel empowered to use the word “sepsis” if you are concerned, as starting antibiotics and fluids as soon as possible is important for successful treatment and better outcomes.


UPDATE 4/25/2018: This webinar has passed. To access the recording, please click here.