When Ricky Kennedy’s wife, Ghislaine, walks into their home, she discovers her husband in need of an ambulance – and fast. He thinks he’s having a heart attack as pain clenches his entire body and prevents him from moving. But as it turns out, the grandfather has sepsis; and it all came from partaking in a common, everyday habit.
At the hospital, doctors told Ricky that he had a 50 percent chance of surviving his battle with sepsis. The illness spreads with haste and can transform into septic shock without the proper course of treatment. And such a turn can cause organ failure – an often deadly side effect.
Still, Ricky’s severe symptoms didn’t seem to make sense considering the days leading up to his arrival at the hospital in January 2018. The only change in his body that he’d noticed was the formation of a small blister on his thumb. But his doctor had issued antibiotics to take care of that already.
Nevertheless, it had been that very bump that had caused Ricky’s health to rapidly decline. The blister had become infected, and it had spread sepsis through the grandfather’s blood and across his body. But how he got the blister – and the resulting blood poisoning – is stunning, considering how many people have the same habit as Ricky.
Ricky Kennedy and his wife, Ghislaine, led a simple life in Westcliff, Dumbarton, which is in Scotland. They attended St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Dumbarton High Street, and they sang in a choir together. Father-of-four Ricky’s musical talents extended to playing instruments, too – namely, he loved to strum the guitar.
But Ricky’s musical hobbies hadn’t caused him to grow a blister on his thumb, a development that had initially concerned the grandfather. He went to see his doctor, who issued a course of antibiotics to treat what appeared to be an infection. However, beneath the surface, a much more serious problem lurked.
Unbeknownst to Ricky, the blister’s infection had begun to spread through his body. It traveled from his thumb up into his arms and across his chest. And that’s when the trouble started – he clearly had much more to contend with than an thumb-based blister.
Ricky’s wife, Ghislaine, would be the first in a line of people who worked to save her husband’s life. She came home one day in January 2018 to find him in excruciating pain. According to The Mirror, Ricky said he “couldn’t move,” and he suspected a very deadly cause was behind it all.
Ricky explained, “I thought I was having a heart attack, and I really did think I was going to die.” Of course, Ghislaine sprung into action – she called her husband’s doctor to come to their home and check out his symptoms. By the time they arrived, though, Ricky seemed to have taken a turn for the worse.
Ghislaine described Ricky’s clearly deteriorating health. She told the Daily Mail in October 2019, “He was absolutely delirious – he didn’t even know what age he was and he could barely breathe or stand up.” Watching her husband fall apart, Ghislaine admitted, “I didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Ghislaine recalled, “By the time that the doctor got here it was all spreading down Ricky’s arms and chest.” But the medical professional knew exactly what was happening – he had sepsis, and the doctor said he needed to go to the hospital immediately in order to save his life.
Ricky’s infected blister had caused sepsis to develop – as any type of infection has the potential to do. Of course, it’s normal for the immune system to react when an infection makes its way into the body. But if the immune system deploys too strong of a defense, it can severely damage a person’s organs and tissues.
More specifically, the immune-system chemicals released to fight an infection can end up causing body-wide inflammation – and from there, sepsis develops. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1.5 million cases occur each year in the U.S. alone. And shockingly, over 250,000 Americans die from sepsis annually.
Because sepsis can stem from any infection, everyone is in danger of developing the condition. Still, some groups prove more susceptible to having a too-strong immune response than others. For instance, premature babies or those whose mothers had infections while pregnant are more prone to developing the blood-based illness.
For its part, sepsis tends to affect more vulnerable populations. Adults over the age of 75 and people of any age who have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy will suffer from it more often. Women who have recently given birth and anyone recovering from a surgery or illness might develop sepsis, too.
A case of sepsis that progresses without medical treatment will go through three stages: sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock. In the first level, symptoms include a diagnosed or suspected infection. On top of that, a person will likely have a temperature higher than 101 degrees or lower than 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first level of sepsis can also cause heart rates to spike higher than 90 beats per minute and breathing to reach an intense 20 breaths per minute. Regardless of which symptoms arise, a doctor will need to see at least two of the above changes before they can diagnose a patient with sepsis.
Without the proper treatment, sepsis will progress to stage two, known as severe sepsis. At that point, organs begin to shut down, and even more symptoms stem from their failure. For instance, a person’s mental abilities might diminish. Elsewhere, they might struggle to breathe or notice their skin losing its color.
Severe sepsis can cause a person to feel incredibly weak or fall unconscious. These and other symptoms follow sufferers into the final stage of sepsis, should they reach it. Septic shock, the third step in the illness, presents with all of the same symptoms as severe sepsis – but it brings with it an extremely low blood pressure.
Such a severe drop in blood pressure can cause a slew of potentially fatal side-effects. Those in septic shock have also gone into heart, respiratory or organ failure, and they’ve had strokes. These and other resulting conditions exemplify the seriousness that septic shock carries – as such, more than 50 percent of such diagnoses end in death, according to Healthline.
Fortunately, doctors do have some treatments at the ready if a patient arrives in need of sepsis-related care. The earlier it’s detected, the better; that way, medical professionals can stall the progression of the illness from sepsis to its potentially fatal form: septic shock.
When treating sepsis, doctors first deploy antibiotics to fight the infection that started the problem in the first place. They’ll use other treatments to re-stabilize the body; insulin balances blood sugar, vasoactive medications boost blood pressure, and corticosteroids diffuse inflammation. And until they start working, painkillers can soothe the aches that come with sepsis.
As it progresses, doctors rely on more than just medications to keep septic patients alive. They might hook them up to dialysis if they experience kidney failure, since the small organs perform the vital task of filtering the blood. They might also use respirators if a sufferer needs help to breathe.
The right treatment can save a septic patient’s life, and those who survive tend to recover fully and return to their normal lives. Unfortunately, though, others will experience long-lasting effects known as post-sepsis syndrome (PSS). Insomnia, fatigue, decreased cognitive function, low self-esteem and organ damage all count as symptoms of this.
In the case of Scottish grandfather Ricky Kennedy, he and his doctors found themselves in a race against the clock. Shockingly, he had only a 50 percent chance of surviving his deadly sepsis diagnosis. And during such an intense time, Ricky told the Lennox Herald in October 2018 that he doesn’t even remember his admittance into the hospital.
Ricky said, “I don’t remember a thing from when I was first taken to hospital. All I can remember is asking a nurse if I was going to die.” Ghisalaine felt the same way – she worried for weeks that her husband might not get to go home with her at the end of his ordeal.
Fortunately, Ricky ended up in the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital’s infectious diseases ward – the sole treatment facility of its kind in Scotland. There, doctors administered a treatment to save his life. They also pinpointed the cause of his near-fatal experience with sepsis – and the source was shocking, to say the least.
As previously mentioned, Ricky’s thumb-based blister had become infected, and it had spread quickly throughout his body. Naturally, the grandfather realized precisely how he had received the bump. He had bitten his fingernail a bit too far down, which caused the blister to form and sent an infection hurtling through his blood stream.
Ricky told The Mirror, “I didn’t think for a second that the cut on my thumb was the cause of it all. It was tiny. I had bitten my nail like that hundreds of times before so to think it almost killed me is terrifying.” According to The Verge, researchers estimate that up to 30 percent of the population bites their nails, too, making Ricky’s story all the more sobering.
Experts have multiple explanations as to why people bite their nails. Whether it’s out of boredom, tiredness or worry, the act of nail biting can bring some sort of momentary comfort or relief. Of course, there are numerous reasons why people do it, with some believing that it’s done as a subconscious form of self-mutilation.
In 2012 the American Psychiatric Association uncovered another potential cause of nail biting. This time, they linked it to obsessive compulsive disorder and called the habit “pathological grooming.” Similarly, people who pull out their eyelashes or scour their faces for pimples might also have this form of OCD.
Three years later, another potential cause emerged when Scientific American published the results of a study that looked into nail biting. Researchers had found that this habit, much like the tendency to pat one’s hair over and over, could be classed as a body focused repetitive disorder.
And, as it turned out, those likely to suffer from a body focused repetitive disorder happened to be perfectionists. Their focus on achieving highly and performing without error could lead them to feel unstimulated or stressed out in imperfect situations. When those feelings arose, then, perfectionists would bite their nails as a sign of frustration or boredom.
Ricky didn’t reveal the reasons he had bitten his thumbnail, but he did admit to doing so on a regular basis. Regardless of why he did it, the results quickly set in; it only took a few hours for sepsis to take over his bloodstream and almost take his life in January 2018.
The road to recovery would be a long one for Ricky, though. He stayed in the hospital from January to May of 2018, and such a long stretch of time in care drove him to a dark place. He told The Mirror, “It was a terrible time and you sink into a depression being stuck in the hospital for that long.”
Leaving the hospital didn’t mark the end of Ricky’s treatment and recovery, either. He spent the following two months on another course of antibiotics. The grandfather also admitted to dealing with continued bouts of excruciating pain – a side-effect similar to how his entire ordeal had started in the first place.
Ricky also developed asthma post-sepsis, and his health scare caused him to acquire arthritis, also an inflammatory condition that affects the joints. And that wasn’t all – sepsis also eroded his collarbone. So, the grandfather would also have to undergo surgery to repair the damaged spots.
Fortunately, though, life returned to a new normal after Ricky’s bout with sepsis. For one thing, he and wife Ghislaine revealed that they would rejoin their choir for a performance in October 2018. And he’s thrilled to still have music in his life. He told the Daily Mail, “Being in the choir and playing my guitar is such an important part of my life, and if I didn’t still have that I don’t know what I would do.”
In the end, though, Ricky said it was the love and support around him that pushed him through his health crisis and recovery. He added, “I really do believe it was the power of prayer that got me through. So many people had me in their thoughts and it meant so much to me… We are all like a big family, it was incredible.”
Interestingly enough, though, one thing about Ricky’s life hasn’t change since his battle with sepsis. He revealed on a segment of U.K. TV show This Morning that he couldn’t quite kick the habit that got him in trouble in the first place. He said, “Sometimes I [bite the nail], but I stop. I realize that I can feel it.”