Health Team

Zebulon man who narrowly survived sepsis wants to raise awareness

Posted April 29, 2015 5:25 p.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2015 3:23 p.m. EDT

Sepsis, a bacterial infection that get into the bloodstream, kills more than 258,000 patients each year in the United States. That’s more deaths than breast, lung and prostate cancers combined.

Zebulon resident Rusty Wagstaff, 56, survived the condition, but not without challenges. He lost both his legs and his right arm from complications.

“He's still the driver and my chauffeur, and I am very thankful for that,” his wife, Bonnie Wagstaff, said as she got into the car with Rusty at the wheel.

Around Christmas 2013, Rusty was not his usual energetic self.

“I just felt very lethargic, very ‘no energy,’” he said.

A flu test at an urgent care center came up negative, so he was told to rest and take Tylenol. The next day, he had a fever of 104 degrees and ended up at Rex Hospital's emergency room.

“In a word, Rusty's situation was dire,” said Dr. Samantha Hansen, a critical care physician at Rex.

Chris McCrath, a UNC flight nurse said, "For every hour treatment of sepsis is delayed, 7.6% more people die."

Hansen said she and a team of providers still don't know the original source of a bacterial infection in Wagstaff's body. When it reached his bloodstream, it quickly became a threat to his organs and his life.

He had advanced sepsis.

“He was absolutely of that category of folks that, unfortunately, rarely survive,” Hansen said.

Wagstaff’s blood pressure had dropped. The drugs used to bring it up also puts the extremities at risk, but surviving is more important.

“They saved my life,” he said. “If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here.”

Bonnie Wagstaff said she also credits “community and family and friends who have prayed for us, we have felt it.”

Rusty Wagstaff doesn't think about his losses, just the gains - being with wife and his grandson.

“That is making all this seem like ‘tsk, no big deal,’” he said. “You know, it gives us something to look forward to every day.”

Now the Wagstaffs want to raise awareness of sepsis because early detection and treatment increases the odds of survival.

Rusty Wagstaff will be honorary chair of the Step on Sepsis 5K race and walkathon, which was co-founded by McCrath. It takes place at 9 a.m. Saturday at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.

Learn more about sepsis by visiting Sepsis Alliance online.

Editor's Note: News & Observer photographer Corey Lowenstein followed the Wagstaffs for a year and took many of the photos used in this story.