How One Grandma Survived the Flu and Sepsis - UnityPoint Health

How One Grandma Survived the Flu and Sepsis

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JoAnn Belken Survives the Flu and Sepsis with the help of three UnityPoint Health hospitals

Three UnityPoint Health hospitals teamed up to help save JoAnn Belken’s life. 

“I was laying on the couch, and then I sat up and started to cough. I couldn’t catch my breath,” Belken says. “I just thought I needed some medicine. They took me back right away and started working on me. I didn’t even know I was sick. I didn’t feel that bad.”

Belken’s troubles began in the winter of 2018 when the 76-year-old got the flu. Although she was taking medication, she felt even worse a few days later. 

Belken’s son immediately took her to the emergency department at UnityPoint Health – Finley Hospital in Dubuque.

“I could see she was quickly going downhill. Her blood pressure was way down,” nurse Jen Hanks says. “I remember it was crazy busy that day, and we were in the middle of a bad flu season. I had four other patients also being treated.” 

Turns out Belken’s body was struggling with more than just the flu. Her care team quickly identified signs of sepsis, which is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It can occur in anyone and is life-threatening if not treated quickly. 

The team started multiple IVs to administer fluids and medications. Belken’s daughter-in-law (pictured above with JoAnn) works at the hospital and rushed to the ER.

“I have a nursing background, and I could tell it was very tenuous,” Carla Belken says. “The care team told me she had an irregular heart rhythm and her lactate levels were not good. She was in distress.”

But Belken was in good hands. UnityPoint Health has created strong sepsis protocols to administer life-saving medications and antibiotics in a tight window. When Belken’s organs needed more help, her care team in Dubuque worked quickly with other UnityPoint Health facilities to get her the care she desperately needed. 

An air ambulance from nearby UnityPoint Health – Cedar Rapids flew Belken north to receive care from specialists at UnityPoint Health – Meriter in Madison. Since all UnityPoint Health facilities share the same electronic record, physicians at Meriter looked at her test results and were ready for Belken’s arrival.

“We have proven order sets (plans of care) for patients with mild to severe sepsis,” Dr. Mona Lazar of UnityPoint Health – Meriter says. “They are designed to increase the patient’s chance for surviving and ensure the least amount of damage to internal organs. We also pull in specialists, such as a nephrologist (kidneys), to collaborate on the care for our patients with sepsis.”

Soon after being admitted at Meriter, doctors put Belken on a ventilator. She was in stable condition but still had a lot to overcome. Doctors identified a case of MSRA, a serious skin infection, which could have triggered the sepsis. Belken was also battling pneumonia, due to the flu bug, and was experiencing trouble with her kidneys. 

After being on the ventilator for nine days and receiving the right medical care, she slowly began to feel better and breath on her own.

“I don’t remember being scared. I think it’s because of the care. I put my trust and prayers in everyone, and I came through,” Belken says.

Once back at home, she received regular follow up care from UnityPoint at Home for a few weeks. The in-home nursing and rehabilitation therapy staff provided a support system for Belken as she made her way back to full health, family time with 10 grandchildren and enjoying the great outdoors.

“I like to fish, work in my garden and golf. Really, I just like to putz around outside,” Belken says.