Cleo's Story

Anna and Paul Moynihan’s daughter Cleo was just over two years old when she developed sepsis in April 2022 – while Anna was heavily pregnant with her second child.

Anna has decided to share Cleo’s story to help make other parents aware of the symptoms, and empower them to advocate for their children by remembering to Just Ask: Could it be sepsis?

Cleo came home from nursery one day last April, and Anna noticed a slight temperature. They gave her some Calpol and put her to bed. The baby monitor showed that she was laying awake, so upon checking on her again, they saw she still had a temperature so they gave her some Nurofen. The temperature didn’t come down, and checking her over her parents could only see a tiny little dot on her back which wasn’t immediately a cause for concern. Anna said: “She seemed okay in herself. She didn’t seem sad or drowsy or anything.”

To be on the safe side, after she remained unsettled, the couple decided to visit their local hospital as it was nearby instead of calling 111. Paul was sent home with Cleo a few hours later, having been told it was probably just a viral infection. The next morning, Cleo was sick for the first time in her life – which made her parents think it was a stomach bug. However, she kept vomiting and then became very drowsy and tired. They phoned the GP before the weekend, who was concerned she might be dehydrated due to the vomiting, so told them to take Cleo back to A&E. Anna said: “I definitely felt a little bit like I was being over the top. A doctor eventually saw her and said her heart rate was a bit high and asked if we could make sure we get a urine sample from her and I just couldn’t because at that point, she wasn’t weeing anymore.”

They kept Cleo in overnight, with Paul taking over from Anna. Cleo wet a nappy but Paul took the decision not to tell doctors because he was worried that they would be sent home. The next day, Cleo was difficult to wake, and the doctor said they would do some bloods – which they eventually did that evening. Then they noticed that Cleo had a full body rash – which initially doctors thought could be an allergy to the cream they put on babies when they are having bloods taken to numb the skin area. But Anna said she didn’t think so, as she’d had the spot on her back before coming into the hospital. Once again, Anna and Paul swapped shifts, with Anna returning home. She said: “My husband called me and said, we’ve got the results back. You need to come back now.”

About twenty different doctors crowded Cleo, trying to figure out what was wrong with her. That night, Anna stayed with her on the high dependency unit where she deteriorated. Initially, doctors thought it might be Paediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome (PIMS), which some children were developing at the time in response to Covid-19. But then the blood test results came back, and it turned out to be Strep A and RSV. Anna said: “What was scary for us as parents was that she was fine. She went to nursery. We had one day’s notice: there was no sign of Strep A, she didn’t go off her food. She didn’t complain of a sore throat.”

“She didn’t have any of the signs that you look for, and that was really terrifying because there was just no warning.”

In the end, Cleo was in the hospital for three weeks. Anna said: “She had fluid on her heart, her kidneys had failed, and her other organs had all started to function abnormally. All of her blood platelets were like completely bottomed out. We hovered between ICU and the high dependency unit for the entire time, which was horrific.”

The couple fielded their questions to friends with medical background rather than risk Googling and being scared by what they found. But after finding the UK Sepsis Trust, Anna reached out to share Cleo’s story to encourage other parents to Just Ask – Could it be sepsis?

Anna said: “Obviously, the doctors and the nurses saved her life with the medical intervention and that knowledge. But the GP who told us to go to A&E and my husband saying, I’m not going to tell the nurse that she’s had a wee, I think that possibly saved her life because had we gone home, I don’t know what would have happened.”

However, it wasn’t plain sailing from there. After leaving hospital it took a further six months for Cleo return to full weight and health – as she was on a feeding tube and couldn’t walk having been bedbound for the three weeks she was hospitalised. Anna said:

“All of the skin on her hands and her nails peeled off her hands and feet, and her hair was burnt from all the treatment.”

Seeing their child so sick was traumatic for Anna and Paul, and Anna has since accessed therapy for her own mental health. Anna said: “It’s just as difficult to see your child post illness. Like during the time we were hospital, it was just so heightened that you were just getting through the day. After she left hospital and she looked like a little like stick doll, I found it really difficult because I was like, ‘Oh my God, she can’t run’. On the plus side, she was so little that I don’t think she’ll ever actually remember it. Thankfully, we were really lucky about that.”

The couple found a few things triggering – including the anniversary of Cleo’s admission to hospital, and watching UKST Ambassador Jason Watkins’ documentary Jason & Clara: In Memory of Maudie. But Anna felt it was important to watch the programme which raised awareness of the condition, and remember that there are tragically some children who do lose their lives to sepsis.

Following their family’s ordeal, Anna’s main message to other parents who are concerned about their child’s health is to not be afraid to go back to the doctor or A&E if the situation changes. She said:

“Don’t feel embarrassed about taking your child to A&E 50 times if it means that they’ve done every test that makes you feel comfortable.”

“Until you’ve actually got like a firm answer, don’t go home and don’t feel embarrassed.”

Anna added: “Trusting your gut instinct and your parenting intuition, whether it’s the mother or the father, is critical. Medicine is amazing and doctors are incredible, but it’s not an exact science and it takes a whole team of people to make the right diagnosis. And that includes the parents as well.”

Thankfully, Cleo is now at preschool and is happy and healthy – and has her final consultation in a few weeks time.

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