Jackie Wang, 30, of Manhasset, had just returned from a vacation in Hong Kong when she started to feel a little under the weather.

At first she shrugged it off as jet lag. But after a week Wang was in a medically induced coma, battling what doctors say is a common but deadly and relatively unknown medical condition: sepsis.

Wang, who has since fully recovered from her bout in 2008, joined doctors at the North Shore-LIJ Patient Safety Institute in Lake Success Wednesday to discuss the condition in advance of a medical conference this week that aims to define and publicize the syndrome.

"Sepsis is the leading cause of death within our system. It is the leading cause of death in virtually every health system in this country," said Dr. Kenneth Abrams, senior vice president of clinical operations for the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. "This is a significant disease that has major impact."

Sepsis is a damaging reaction of the body to an infection or trauma that can strike anyone, regardless of age or gender. It is the cause of a quarter of all hospital deaths in the United States.

It is best treated aggressively in its early stages with fluids and antibiotics, but because its symptoms are not always the same from patient to patient, it is not always diagnosed quickly enough, Abrams said. Among the symptoms are chills, delirium, fever or low body temperature , hyperventilation, lightheadedness and rapid heart beat.

In Wang's case, "jet lag" turned into a severe sore throat and difficulty breathing. She went to the North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset where, after about a week, doctors medically induced a 10-day coma as they treated her for the life-threatening sepsis.

"I had no idea what sepsis was," Wang said. "I didn't even know I had it."

Wednesday, she and her husband, Tom Wang, 38, watched as North Shore-LIJ doctors and nurses staged a dramatic re-enactment of the time after she entered the emergency room, using a specialized dummy in a hospital bed and an actor to play the part of her husband.

Sepsis kills more people each year than cancer, said Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset. Tracey said this week's conference, with 150 researchers from around the world, aims to establish a layperson's definition of sepsis as well as a molecular definition. Severe sepsis strikes about 750,000 Americans annually, the National Institutes of Health says.

Abrams said sepsis has remained under the radar because of limited research funding, as well as the difficulty of diagnosis. Wang said she feels fortunate that she was able to get through the illness.

"I'm the rare case that can survive unscathed," she said.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is an inflammatory response by the body in response to an infection or trauma. It is a serious condition that can lead, if not treated, to shock, organ failure and death if not treated.

Typical symptoms of sepsis include difficult breathing, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure and confusion.

Sepsis is best treated in its early stages through intravenous fluids and antibiotics.If you have these symptoms and are concerned, contact a health professional and ask about the possibility of sepsis.

- JENNIFER BARRIOS

SOURCE: North Shore-LIJ Health System

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