'Our son looked at me in the hospital lift, that was the last time I saw him with his wee eyes open... sepsis took his life within days'
A couple who are facing the agony of having lost their fun-loving toddler to septicaemia has launched a drive to raise awareness of the symptoms in the hope of saving other lives.
As World Septicaemia Day is marked today, Melissa and Brian McCarter, who live in Belfast, have shared their own poignant story in the hope of informing others about the dangers.
The couple, originally from Londonderry, has nothing but praise for the treatment by medical teams of their son Aaron in his final days despite the fact that his condition was initially not picked up.
Eighteen-month-old Aaron developed what his parents thought was a tummy bug. When he hadn't improved within 48 hours his mum took him to A&E.
It was discovered his sodium levels were dangerously low and he was admitted to intensive care. It was several hours later that doctors realised he was, in fact, fighting sepsis.
Medical teams pulled out all the stops, including operating on the little boy three times in the following days but he died within a week of being brought to A&E by his worried mum.
The shock of his loss on September 6, 2014, is still acute for Melissa and Brian but the couple have found a way to cope - by joining their local cycling club which has just appointed the Belfast support group of the UK Sepsis Trust as its charity partner for the next year.
It is Melissa and Brian's hope, not only to raise funds for the charity, but to put sepsis and its symptoms in the public consciousness.
Melissa (41), a pharmacist who has an 18-year-old step-daughter Annabel, says: "People do recover from sepsis but the symptoms need to be picked up and we just want to make people aware of the signs and we also want people in A&E be cognitive of it. We're delighted that our club, Titanic Quarter Cycling Club, has adopted the charity for the year. We have held our first fundraiser and will be planning events throughout the rest of this year and in 2017. We really want to do everything we can in the next 12 months to raise awareness."
Aaron had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis three weeks after his birth, which was a terrible shock for his parents, although Melissa said they had come to terms with it.
When he fell ill with diarrhoea two years ago this month, she couldn't ever have guessed that within days she would be preparing to bury her only son.
Aaron developed diarrhoea on the Friday before he died and the next day began to vomit.
Initially Melissa and Brian, (44), an engineer, thought their son had developed a bug.
Little Aaron had just had his first haircut on the day he became ill and was due to have his first swimming lesson which had to be cancelled.
His mum recalls: "He still wasn't well on the Sunday and I took him to the out of hours doctor who thought he had an ear infection. He gave Aaron antibiotics and we took him home.
"Aaron had been diagnosed at three weeks old with cystic fibrosis which very much came as a shock to us but we had good support and had come to terms with it."
But Aaron's condition began to deteriorate.
"Throughout that Sunday night his diarrhoea got much worse and I phoned my mum about 7am the next morning. I just had this terrible feeling that if he went to sleep he wouldn't wake up.
"Mum came down from Derry and I took Aaron to our GP about 11am. I was trying not to be a neurotic mum and the doctor reassured me he was alright. I asked him at what point should I take him to hospital if he didn't get any better and he told me to leave it until tea-time.
"I took him to children's A&E in the Royal about 4pm and they started to give him fluids. They didn't seem to be helping and I was trying not to panic."
Blood tests were taken which indicated that Aaron's sodium levels were very low which is a particular concern in children with cystic fibrosis as they can't regulate their salt levels.
More blood tests were carried out and quickly confirmed that the sodium levels were indeed very low and Aaron was taken to ICU so that they would get sodium into him.
Melissa says: "You are still thinking he'll be grand and not allowing yourself to panic. There was no mention of a virus and the whole focus was on getting his sodium levels up.
"I remember he was taken up to ICU in the lift and he looked at me and that is the last time I saw him with his wee eyes open."
Aaron was sedated and despite heroic efforts by medical staff over the next few days he never regained consciousness.
It was around 11.15pm that night when it was discovered that Aaron was battling sepsis.
Each year in the UK around 31,000 people die from sepsis with an estimated 100,000-plus admitted to hospital with the condition.
Sepsis is referred to as blood poisoning and can be triggered by an infection or injury.
It causes the body's immune system to go into overdrive as it tries to fight the infection.
This can reduce blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys.
Without quick treatment sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death.
As doctors worked through the night to try and stabilise Aaron it was discovered the infection had damaged his bowel and he had emergency surgery to remove it.
"They did everything," says Melissa.
"They put him on blood cleaning machines and he had three different surgeries. We just sat and waited and waited.
"On Thursday night they advised us that if any family wanted to come we should contact them. It was so traumatic. He went through such a lot and on the Friday when they did a scan to see if there was any brain activity we knew that was it. They stopped sedating him and waited until Saturday to see if he would come round and we had to make the decision to switch the machines off.
"We always expected with cystic fibrosis that he might not live a full life and might only live to his early 40s but we never expected to lose him at just 18 months."
Melissa breaks down as she talks about her bright and fun-loving little boy and how she and Brian have tried to carry on without him.
During the tough few days their son battled in hospital, a nurse and Brian, a keen cyclist, had vowed to cycle a lap of Lough Neagh if he pulled through.
After his death they decided to do it in his memory and Melissa joined them in training. Together they completed the mammoth 90-mile challenge, raising over £8,000 for the cystic fibrosis unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The cycling proved a lifeline to both parents as the struggled with their terrible loss.
Melissa explains: "Some days are better than others and we've had brilliant support from family and friends and work colleagues.
"You just have to take it one day at a time. Cycling saved my sanity. Joining the Titanic Cycling Club and meeting new people and getting out really helped me to cope.
"I really don't know how I would have coped if I hadn't started cycling. We've made really good friends from it and we enjoy it.
"It did save both Brian and I and it was nice to be able to do something together.
"If we are feeling bad we just head up to Portaferry or Antrim on the bikes and we have a bit of craic. Our friends at the cycling club have been a real help."
It means everything to the couple that the club has adopted the sepsis charity for the year and while they will be raising funds, for Melissa creating awareness among parents and medical staff is crucial.
She says: "I'm a pharmacist and know that if a child has diarrhoea for 48 hours that you need to get help - and I did that but no one picked up on the virus or stopped the infection.
"I just want to put it in peoples' thought processes and get them to think of sepsis. The hospital couldn't have done more for us or Aaron but we know that awareness is very important and even medical staff need to be aware of the signs and symptoms."
Every day is difficult without little Aaron to light up their lives. Melissa described her wee boy as "an absolute treasure".
She adds: "He was a very loving, smiley wee boy who was into everything and anything. He just lit up our lives.
"He was good fun and loved a laugh. I had a wee seat on the back of my bike for him and I took him everywhere and he loved it. He charmed everyone who met him and we just miss him and wish now that people will be aware of this terrible condition - and hopefully parents will be alert and tell medical staff of their concerns and put sepsis out there."
The symptoms to watch out for
- early symptoms of sepsis include: a high temperature (fever) or low body temperature, chills and shivering, a fast heartbeat and fast breathing
- in more severe sepsis or septic shock when blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, patients can feel dizzy or faint, confused or disorientated, have diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, slurred speech, severe muscle pain, severe breathlessness and produce less urine than normal
- if sepsis is detected early and hasn't affected vital organs it can be treated with antibiotics. Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage make a full recovery