Four years ago in 2019, BBC World News presenter Karin Giannone developed sepsis from cystitis.
She is sharing her story in Sepsis Awareness Month 2023 to help make others aware of the ability of this killer condition to affect anyone, at any time – even healthy, park run fanatics!
After finishing the weekend shift at BBC World News, then 45-year-old Karin was enjoying a day off despite having had cystitis for about a week. Having suffered with UTIs most of her adult life, she hadn’t got antibiotics for it because she felt it was clearing up by itself. Karin said: “I’d also had a bit of an ache in my side and in the past I’ve had a kidney infection, but it wasn’t agonizing pain. I thought maybe it was because of my exercising, I might have pulled a muscle.”
But by lunchtime, Karin sensed something wasn’t right after she started to feel a chill unlike anything she’d felt before, despite having a temperature of over 39 degrees. She had her nine-year-old daughter with her at the time and decided to go to the doctor. Her GP prescribed antibiotics, but by the time Karin got to the pharmacist, she could barely cross the road without help from her daughter. She said:
She went to bed that afternoon, taking paracetamol, suspecting that she had flu and needed to sweat it out. Her mum came round and wanted Karin to go to hospital, but she was adamant about waiting for her online shop to be delivered. Eventually, with some encouragement from her mum and a 111 operator, Karin was persuaded to visit Tunbridge Wells A&E. She said: “I felt like such a time waster. I thought ‘I’ve just got flu, they are going to send me away’.”
But after her temperature had reached 39.7 degrees and still shivering, despite it having been 25 degrees that day, Karin realised she had made the right decision to come to hospital. In hindsight, she would encourage anyone who doesn’t feel quite right to trust their gut and seek medical advice. She said: “Who cares if you are bothering someone or making a fuss, or wasting someone’s time?”
She was eventually seen by a doctor, who said that her blood tests indicated that her body was really fighting something. Karin said: “He said, ‘I think you’ve got a serious bacterial infection. We’re going to admit you and I’m going to give you antibiotics of last resort’. I’ve never heard anything so frightening in my life.”
Karin was taken to the acute medical unit, where she was treated with IV antibiotics. Thankfully, she made a rapid recovery and was discharged the next day with an ambulatory care plan to continue her course of antibiotics from home. Subsequent doctors said it must just have been a virus, given the speed of her recovery – but then on the Friday morning Karin got an urgent call from the hospital. They told her that she had gram negative bacteria in her bloodstream which was E.coli, which had gone from her kidneys into her bloodstream, triggering sepsis. Karin said: “I was so, so lucky that my mum had sounded the alarm and said go to A&E now because I would have happily slept till the following morning and those extra 12 hours could have made all the difference, because the sepsis that I had was caught in time before it started to do terrible and life-changing things to my body.”
Although she was able to be discharged quite quickly, Karin’s sepsis recovery journey was not entirely plain sailing. She initially returned to work too soon. She said: “So many of us have this, this feeling of ‘I need to get back as soon as possible and just get on with it.’ And I was presenting a very exhausting Evening News programme that summer called Outside Source, and it involved being on your feet for two or three hours in front of a touch screen, live TV interview after interview. I wanted to get back to it because I felt bad about being off. I think it must have been about a week or two later. I did one shift and I needed about five espresso to get through it. I managed to survive, but I just said after that ‘I’m just not up to it’. I was exhausted.”
Luckily, her employer was extremely supportive and helped her return to work on a part-time basis. Karin said: “The BBC was brilliant and understood how being on air, you can’t really go on air if you’re not feeling up to it. There’s nowhere to hide, so being that exhausted and how I had no stamina for a for a good couple of months, they were great and they adjusted my work to cope with that.”
But she continued to experience fatigue for several months afterwards, including on a family holiday with her children – who she has since worked to educate about the dangers of sepsis. Now, Karin is keen to help raise awareness among others, sharing posts about sepsis on her social media channels each anniversary. She said: “I think maybe there are misconceptions that it’s young children and older people who are most prone to it. But I was a healthy 45-year-old doing park runs, running lots of kilometres every week; running around after children, doing a high-pressure job and something as trivial as a UTI or cystitis got me into that situation because it just got hold of me turned into a kidney infection, which I didn’t even know was there. It’s not dramatic or headline grabbing, it can be that something that trivial.”