July 18, 2012 at 9:18 AM ET
When Rory Staunton scraped his arm diving for a basketball, nobody thought much about it. But two days later, the 12-year-old was fighting for his life in a New York City hospital as bacteria from the injury raced through his bloodstream. He died in the intensive care unit. The bacteria and his body’s reaction to it — a condition known as septic shock — killed him, doctors determined.
The night after Rory scraped himself he started to experience odd symptoms. “A little after midnight I heard him in the bathroom throwing up,” his mom, Orlaith Staunton, told TODAY. “So I went in. He was screaming with a pain in his leg. He said 'it's my leg, mom. It’s my leg.'”
Rory’s parents took him to their pediatrician the next morning.
“She said, ‘this is a stomach virus,” Orlaith said. “'It’s making its way around New York. I’ve seen it before. Because he hasn’t eaten he needs to be rehydrated. You need to go to the ER and have him rehydrated.’”
Rory was given fluids at NYU Langone Medical Center and sent home, his parents said. The problem was, symptoms such as Rory’s could be caused by a variety of illnesses. But lab results that arrived hours after Rory left for home held one important clue, The New York Times reported — his white blood cell count was disturbingly high, indicating a significant infection. But his parents say nobody ever told them about that.
By the following night, Rory was so sick that he requested a wheelchair in the ER. This time doctors knew something was very wrong.
“They were all around him,” Orlaith said. “I was trying to listen to conversations and finally got this doctor to talk to me. He said, ‘Your son is very ill. He is seriously ill.’”
They diagnosed sepsis, a potentially deadly condition that is characterized by an infection and a body-wide state of inflammation. The treatment for sepsis is two-pronged: antibiotics or antivirals coupled with therapies to combat inflammation and its fallout. None of the therapies given to Rory would save his life, however. On April 1, he died in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
Rory's pediatrician declined to comment. The NYU Langone Medical Center told NBC News: "Our deepest and most heartfelt sympathies go out to the Staunton family. We have already implemented corrective actions to address the delivery of care to our ED patients. We have extended several invitations to the family to meet with us when they are ready."
His parents are stunned, grief-stricken, and looking for answers.
“Parents need to know,” Rory’s dad, Ciaran, told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie. “I don’t want any other parents to have to sit here on your couch. And that’s why we are here today: to warn other parents."
Rory's family has created a website in his memory, which they invited people to read to learn more about their son and also to learn about the signs of sepsis.
"All we have left is a headstone and memories," he said. "No parent across America should have to go through that.”
No one can know for sure what would have happened if Rory's infection had been caught hours earlier, sepsis researcher Dr. David Gaieski told TODAY.com. Though time is of the essence — even an hour can make a difference — people die even when treatment is quick, said Gaieski, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and clinical director of the center for resuscitation science at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gaieski’s hospital has pushed to recognize sepsis signs earlier. And that’s paid off, he said. Deaths from severe sepsis at his site have dropped from 24 percent to 11 percent since the program began. Doctors there now use a blood test to help spot people in trouble.
Over the past decade it has become more important to recognize the warning signs: Sepsis appears to be on the rise. The number of hospitalizations for the condition more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, according to data released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because it can be so difficult to diagnose sepsis early, parents, the ones who know their kids the best, need to know what to watch out for, Gaieski said.
“If your kid has a scrape it shouldn’t cause a high fever or pain that is out of proportion with the injury — or in a different spot from where the scrape is,” he added. “You should also be concerned if your kid has an unexplained rash, trouble breathing, or a fast respiratory rate or lethargy without typical cold symptoms such as a runny nose, a sore throat or a cough.”