It Could Happen To Your Child: Learn To Spot Sepsis

by Kara Lawler
Originally Published: 
A brown-haired child with sepsis lying in a hospital bed

It’s raining—a hard, soaking rain. I have the windows open and the air is crisp and clean. I can actually smell the ferns hanging on my front porch. It smells like life right outside of my window, but I have just learned the details of a young boy’s death. It’s just past 11:00 a.m., and I’ve hung up the phone with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, saying a quiet prayer of thanks for the children waiting for me to finish the call.

Ciaran and Orlaith Staunton hung up the phone after our call with only one child to turn to, as their son, Rory, had died 3 years earlier from sepsis, a clearly identifiable disease. From a scraped arm in gym class at school, he developed sepsis, a reaction to an infection of any kind, but was not diagnosed. The scrape was minor, but bacteria entered the wound and Rory died 3 days after the scrape. Over 250,000 Americans die per year of sepsis, I learned from the Stauntons, and was shocked when they told me that it is the leading pediatric killer worldwide.

It’s after lunch and my small son is building a castle with his blocks near the window. He’s doing his best to keep his little sister from wrecking his creations, but it’s futile and he decides to add her into the story. It’s dark in the living room, and as I turn on the lights, he tells me all about what he’s building. It’s fantastical and literary—a knight is trying to protect his fortress from the attacks of the enemy—a toddler, his sister. With the lights now on, the stage is set for a massive battle.

Rory, a bit older, loved blocks, too, and would spend hours building with them, just like my son does now. One day, on a day much like this one, his mother asked him what he was building. Already a civil rights advocate at such a young age, he answered that he was building a hospital near where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. His dream was that his hospital would save the life of King after the shooting that proved fatal.

My son is sitting at his desk writing a short story after dinner. His desk is red and is up against a taupe wall. The room is covered with Star Wars posters and toys now, but there are still many stuffed animals—signs that my boy is still just a little one. I’ve looked in his desk before, only to find short stories, written in very basic structure—one sentence per image. When I’ve found them, he’s told me all about them. Even at 6, he has a way with words and storytelling and I can already see that he’s a writer.

Rory sat at a black desk. The walls in his room were dark blue—a color he had picked himself—and his room was decorated with pictures and models of airplanes. His passion was flying, and at 12, he had already flown a plane. There are a few posters on the wall of Family Guy, a sign that he was soon to be a teenager. After he died, in his desk, his parents found a letter to the leader of North Korea. Rory was a human rights advocate, even that young, and in his free time he drafted letters to enact change.

We’ve just returned from our walk and my son talked to everyone we saw. It makes for a slow walk sometimes, but I allow him to be social when he feels called to be. My son is only 6 and is generally the smaller boy in a class, but he already has a way with people. I watched him at his kindergarten orientation and he went up to each child he met, introducing himself. Hanging back, I allowed him to make his own introductions and to find his own place in a sea of strangers. He’s quick to sit with someone if they are alone and even this young, he’s very empathetic. A crowd isn’t daunting to him and making a new friend is exciting.

Rory was 12 when he died, but was known as a friend to many. Always the one to take a student under his wing, he tried to make people new to his school or town feel welcomed. A recent transfer student from Japan, whom Rory had befriended, wrote a tribute to Rory after his death, and it was clear that Rory was an amazing friend. At 5 feet 9 inches and 160 pounds at age 12, he was generally the tallest kid in his class, and instead of using his size to intimidate, he was the class helper—the big teddy bear of a kid with red hair and freckles.

It’s right before bed and my two children are playing. My son is chasing my daughter from the playroom to his bedroom and she is squealing at the pursuit. That’s how they play together—just running from place to place. I gather them into my lap and read them a story before we start the routine of bedtime. My son is reading now, so sometimes, he reads the story to us.

Rory and Kathleen, Rory’s beloved sister, played together, just like my children are now. They were best friends—just like my children are. One of their very favorite things to do was to ride their bikes through the community Rory so loved. At age 7, Rory even petitioned and helped raise money for a new bike path in his community. As small children, after the bike rides, at the end of the day, his mother also gathered them into her lap for a bedtime story, and as Rory got older, he would also take turns reading.

When I spoke to the Stauntons, I couldn’t help but hear my son in Rory, my daughter in Kathleen, Rory’s younger sister. Rory could be my child. Rory could be your child. The only real difference is that we get to put our children to bed tonight. Rory’s bed is empty.

Tragically, Rory died of sepsis and it was preventable, but like most parents, before my conversation with the Stauntons, I didn’t know much about the disease. According to the Sepsis Alliance’s website, sepsis “is the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to infection which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.” The infection can enter any cut, small or large, and Rory’s cut happened in gym class when he scraped his arm. The symptoms are easily identifiable, but mimic the flu. With early recognition, a complete recovery may be made, but without recognition, death is likely. Had he been diagnosed early, Rory would have been likely to live, education about sepsis is crucial to prevent further needless deaths.

Please, honor Rory and protect your children by learning the signs of sepsis: fever, dizziness, cold and mottled skin, chills, pain and shortness of breath are just a few. More symptoms are found here.

September is Sepsis Awareness Month Please visit the Rory Staunton Foundation for more information about sepsis prevention, education and their annual forum.

Let’s save lives. Become educated about sepsis. Learn the signs. Protect your child.

This article was originally published on