June 2015 Issue
May 22, 2015

Sepsis, the no. 1 cause of death in hospitals, is on the rise — and so is the need for education, awareness

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president; Anne Goldman, UFT vice president for non-DOE members; Ciaran Staunton, co-founder of The Rory Staunton Foundation and Karen E. Magee, NYSUT president.
Caption: Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president; Anne Goldman, UFT vice president for non-DOE members; Ciaran Staunton, co-founder of The Rory Staunton Foundation and Karen E. Magee, NYSUT president. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

When 12-year-old Queens student Rory Staunton scraped his elbow playing basketball, the wound received only a Band-Aid. It wasn't cleaned or treated with antibiotic cream. Nor was Rory sent to the school nurse. Strep A had been going around in the school, yet his parents had not been notified.

Rory developed a high fever and was brought to a New York City hospital. He was sent home, despite having symptoms of sepsis — blood poisoning — something his parents had never heard of.

Three days later Rory was back at the hospital, where he died in the ICU.

"He passed through many hands," said Ciaran Staunton, Rory's father. "Sepsis is the most common cause of death in hospitals."

Yet, sepsis was never uttered when his son was being examined in the hospital, Staunton said. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body's response to an infection injures its own tissues and organs.

"When he died he was purple from head to toe," Staunton said. He was 5'9" and 169 pounds ... "a giant heart ... Rory's death was preventable. Everyone who touched him failed him."

The mortality rate for sepsis is staggering, Staunton told more than 100 school and hospital health care professionals during an emotional keynote address at NYSUT's annual forum in April. Sepsis strikes a million Americans every year, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 250,000 of them will die. Sepsis kills more Americans than AIDS, breast cancer, lung cancer and stroke combined.

Delegates to NYSUT's recently concluded Representative Assembly recognized the dangers and passed a resolution directing the statewide union to promote awareness and education about sepsis.

The painful journey of Orlaith and Ciaran Staunton, Rory's parents, takes them far and wide to remedy ignorance about sepsis.

Their goals are to:

  • raise awareness of sepsis risks for children and young adults through education and outreach programs supported by the Rory Staunton Foundation;
  • improve pediatric sepsis diagnosis and rapid treatment protocols for hospitals and medical clinics; and
  • train teachers and staff in public and private schools to recognize and arrange for prompt treatment of students potentially exposed to bacteria, including prompt notification to parents.

"All schools should have a universal, mandated protocol of safety for any wounds," Staunton said, with mandated, state protocols for outbreaks and injuries in schools, including informing parents.

The Stauntons have met with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathew Burwell, and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to urge the federal public health agency to update information and become proactive. They have testified before the U.S. Senate. They've stared into their devastation and the klieg lights on the NBC Today show, Dr. Oz and CBS Evening News; spoken at the national convention of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare; and been written about in The New York Times. They hosted the first ever national conference on sepsis in Washington, D.C.

So far, CDC's response has been "lackluster at best ... We want them to deal with sepsis the same way they are dealing with ebola. They are not giving it the urgency it needs," said Staunton.

His son was a freckle-faced, tall, apple-cheeked young boy on the cusp of teenagedom. Rory loved Rosa Parks. He started a campaign to get people to stop saying "the R word" (retard) and got involved with the Special Olympics.

Visibly shaken by talking about his son, Staunton confessed, "It's not easy." Heart-weary, yet determined, he is not stopping.

"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it," he told the hushed audience at the NYSUT health forum.

New York state is the first government in the world to sign "Rory's regulations for identification and treatment of sepsis."

"Using evidence-based standards, we have identified key protocols to improve patient outcomes for sepsis," said former state Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah in 2013 when the state issued its new protocols. "Further, we are taking additional steps to ensure that children's vital health information, including lab and test results, is communicated effectively to both parents and primary care providers."

"Every day 20 New Yorkers get to live because of Rory's regulations," Staunton said.

On May 1, the New York Statewide School Health Services Center trained 500 school nurses on the necessity for early recognition and intervention with sepsis using Rory's story and showing the Rory Staunton Foundation YouTube video Sepsis: A Hidden Crisis Exposed.


Sepsis occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight an infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body. This inflammation can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems, causing them to fail.

If sepsis progresses to septic shock, blood pressure drops dramatically, which may lead to death.

General symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Hypothermia
  • Heart rate >90 beats per minute (bpm)
  • Fast respiratory rate
  • Altered mental status (confusion/coma)
  • Edema (swelling)
  • High blood glucose without diabetes


The National Institutes of Health has a sepsis fact sheet at www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/Pages/factsheet_sepsis.aspx.
New York's fact sheet can be found at www.health.ny.gov/facilities/public_health_and_health_planning_council/meetings/2013-02-07/docs/13-01.pdf.

The Rory Staunton Foundation is online at http://rorystaunton.com/.

To read the Staunton's story in The New York Times, go to www.nytimes.com/2012/07/12/nyregion/in-rory-stauntons-fight-for-his-life-signs-that-went-unheeded.html?_r=0.