Surviving sepsis: Beth's story
There are some unspoken rules in the TV news business, like always assume the microphone is hot and stay out of other photographers’ shots. Another is to keep the story succinct. Even on a one-hour broadcast, a general report may last a minute and a half, possibly two.
But there are times when it’s necessary to go longer. Beth Parrish’s story is one of those times.
A couple weeks ago on a warm, sunny Friday morning, I made my way to Big Lake to meet the Parrish family and began working on the story of the middle daughter who's now 55.
I had had a few conversations and traded emails with the family’s matriarch Ann and knew they were eager to get the word out about sepsis, a serious medical condition that nearly took Beth’s life. The doctors told her that only 1% of people with cases as severe as hers survive.
The Parrish family is a tight-knit group of five: mother Ann, father Al and three daughters Katy, Beth and Lara. Though the girls spent their formative years in Anchorage, they’ve found solace and joy in the cabin at Big Lake since 1976.
The Parrishes aren’t originally from Alaska, though they've been here for decades. Al arrived in the ‘60s from Washington while Ann came in from Utah. He enjoyed a successful career in tourism, and she served on the University of Alaska Board of Regents; in 1987 Ann became the first woman to become president and held the post for two years.
Three years ago, when Beth's story of surviving sepsis began, Beth had a flourishing career as a mortgage banker in Paso Robles, California. She had two daughters and one granddaughter.
On Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, she met one of her daughters for lunch. Beth hadn't been feeling well. A co-worker was just getting over the flu and Beth thought maybe she had caught it.
Instead of heading back to work, she decided to call it an early weekend and go home. She asked her boyfriend Chuck to bring home some flu medicine. It wasn't a good night.
Her stomach was upset, and she didn't sleep well. She was definitely coming down with something. When she woke up early the next morning the flu symptoms were there, but they had some odd company.
"My fingers had a gray tint to them along with my toes and also at the end of my nose," she said.
That was odd for sure. But Beth isn't an “ER person” so she resisted going to get things checked out. It wasn't until some stronger prompting from Chuck that she decided they were going to the hospital.
"I walked in thinking, 'This is a waste of time. I'm going to sit here for three hours. I'm fine,’" she said.
But her boyfriend's persuasion saved Beth's life. She went to Twin Cities Community Hospital in nearby Templeton. Within an hour, things went sideways. First, Beth lost consciousness. In 24 hours she was in a coma.
Al and Ann were at the lake.
"We got the phone call we better get down there," Al said. He even got a speeding ticket on the highway in California. The police eased up when he told them why he was moving so fast.
Soon, Parrishes were coming in from all over the country. Lara was flying in from Atlanta, Katy from Tacoma, an aunt from San Diego was there. Yet, there was not a lot for them to do.
"Our whole family stood around that bed holding her hand and each other's and individually and as a group prayed for her," Ann said.
The only time Ann lost her composure, she continued, was when Beth was wheeled down the hall. As bad as it looked, the family never gave up hope.
By now, they knew it was sepsis. Beth was to be transferred to French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. But her ride was only beginning, and she was far from safe.
Sepsis is difficult to diagnose.
"Sepsis is a syndrome that's a result of an infection that causes a dysregulated host immune response,” said Dr. Roy Davis, a pediatrician and sepsis specialist who worked at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for 35 years. He served as chief medical officer there for 12 years.
If sepsis gets going, it can be very difficult to handle. It attacks organs, such as the kidney and liver, eventually causing organ failure.
"But it's caused by an infection initially," Davis said. He didn't treat Beth since she was in California, but as a close friend of the Parrishes, he did speak often with Al, who also worked at Providence as the CEO for 12 years.
Davis now works as the chief medical officer of a start-up company called Immunexpress Inc., which is researching effective ways to diagnose sepsis.
In Beth's case, the problems originated as a kidney stone that became toxic. At first, it was mistaken for a pulled muscle.
Ultimately, in order to save her life, Beth was forced to lose both her legs from the knees down. Her right arm was amputated at the elbow and three of her fingers on her left hand were also taken. She was in the ICU for 24 days of her two-month hospital stay.
Her family kept her propped up.
"You know, bad stuff's going to happen, and what happened to our family was really horrible, but you’ve got to try to figure out the good stuff," said Lara. The fact that Beth is alive and functioning is a long way from where they were.
"Three years ago we weren't sure she was going to be able to ever breathe again, let alone walk again," Katy said.
Beth walks with a walker and needs someone to stay close by. She gets around in a wheelchair too, but she's looking forward to the day she walks on her own.
This summer, the Parrishes had a reunion of sorts. It was the first time in over 30 years that only the original five were there. It even included a trip to the Alaska State Fair.
"It brought the family so much closer," remarked Al, as he was on his boat looking back at the cabin adorned with the sign "Parrishville, Big Lake, Alaska."
Ann called Beth's arrival home from the hospital in December 2016 the ultimate Christmas present. Now every day is like Christmas and a day to be celebrated for Beth — she has her children and grandchildren.
The TV news report on Beth’s story lasted 7 minutes and 13 seconds. There are no rules except do your best and go with it. The Parrishes understand that.
September is sepsis awareness month; learn more about how to spot the signs at sepsis.org.
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