Dr Poppy Gibson had maternal sepsis eight years ago. The 34-year-old Essex mum of two didn’t access any support after recovery, despite the pressures of having a new-born to look after.
Now, she’s sharing her experience as part of our Sepsis Voices campaign to encourage other sepsis survivors to seek help earlier in their recovery journey.
Poppy Gibson was 26 and pregnant with her second child when, at 34 weeks, she started to experience pain in her side. She went to A&E, where they found a shadow on an X-ray. Doctors believed this was just a compression of her lung due to the fact she was petite and carrying a large baby.
She was sent home, but over the next few days started to deteriorate to the point where she could hardly breathe. She was told by doctors it was likely to be pneumonia and began treatment. She then delivered her baby after being induced at 36 weeks.
The combination of her illness and the medical induction of her pregnancy led to her experiencing delusions . She said: “I remember waking up after my baby was born and thinking I was in an African tent in the middle of the desert, in one of those big white tents with the fans going around.”
She returned home but nine days after birth she struggled to breastfeed due to the extent of the pain. She said:
Poppy then asked her husband to put the heating on, despite being wrapped up in flannel pyjamas and a dressing gown, only to be told the house wasn’t cold. She then started experiencing rigours, with her whole body shaking.
After calling 111, her husband took her to A&E, where she struggled to provide a urine sample – passing no urine in a day is a sign of sepsis, something Poppy didn’t know that at the time. She said: “I remember getting another bottle from the vending machine and downing a bottle of water because I was desperate to get this sample to find out what was wrong with me, because at this point, there was still no diagnosis to be made. I remember feeling really disappointed in myself that I couldn’t give a urine sample and it just seemed to take hours of sitting around in hospital, no one really knowing what was wrong. And then and a doctor came and said, ‘Look, I don’t think it’s the pneumonia. The pneumonia medication isn’t working’. And I always remember this phrase, he said, ‘I think the pneumonia is a red herring’.”
The doctor ordered an MRI scan and found a kidney abscess where the pain had been. Poppy was then taken to intensive care, where she had a central line put through her neck and was given medication to cure the infection, with a drain put into the abscess.
For the next nine days, Poppy couldn’t talk, and her situation seemed bleak. She said: “I remember I was in a bed opposite an elderly man, and one evening a doctor sat with this man for hours and the man passed away and this doctor with this bushy beard filled in his notes. And then the doctor moved his chair to my bed. And I remember just thinking, ‘Oh, I’m next’.”
She had two blood transfusions, before eventually she started to improve. Poppy said: “Even though it was only nine days, I already couldn’t walk independently. But what I didn’t realise about sepsis was the mental effect it had on me. Obviously, my body was totally drained and at one point I was a shell just attached to machines. But part of the sepsis for me was a lot of hallucinations; I remember I was convinced one of the nurses was trying to poison me. And every time she came to change the fluids attached to my neck, I was convinced she was attaching a poisoned bag.”
The trauma of her ICU stay was compounded by not having been able to breastfeed and bond with her second child as planned; the sepsis had led to Poppy’s milk supply had drying up. She said: “I think that was one of the hardest things for me because when I saw him again, I remember holding my son and he just smelt really foreign.”
However, Poppy refused to give up. She used an electric breast pump to restore her supply, even though this involved a gruelling routine of pumping every fifteen minutes and taking supplements. She achieved her goal and was able to combi-feed her son until he was 10 months old.
It wasn’t all plain sailing from there though. Coming out of hospital, Poppy experienced anxiety about cleanliness and germs and the possibility of her children getting sepsis. She said: “Before sepsis, I didn’t really think about my own mortality. After sepsis I became very cautious, particularly in those first few weeks, because in hospital you feel really safe as everything is sterile, but sepsis really makes you think about infection whereas you might not have before. I’d gone from being a mum that was very relaxed to suddenly a mum that was very hyper vigilant.”
Poppy recalls a moment where she got a papercut from a takeaway menu, and she experienced a panic attack over the possibility of reinfection. She said: “I fell to the kitchen floor, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to get sepsis again now’. And I just felt so sick, it’s going to happen again. Looking back now, that was crazy, to think that was going to happen. But I think having sepsis does change your mindset and makes you more worried.”
In a way, having a new-born baby forced Poppy to just get on with things and put her own health second. She said:
“because I think I left hospital just so happy to be home with my family after what seemed forever, I didn’t realise how useful it would have been to talk to people about this experience. Even now, eight years later, I would say it’s only in the past six months that I’ve started talking about it on social media.”
Poppy’s advice to other expectant mothers, or parents recovering from sepsis is: “Just be kind to yourself and remember to try and find that balance between you and your baby. If the baby eats well, you need to eat well, and if the baby’s all clean, you need to try and get a shower and try to find that balance between the two of you, which can be so hard when you’re a new mum. But just don’t forget about you in the equation.”
We’re grateful to Poppy for sharing her experiences of maternal sepsis.