Dad of child who died of sepsis urges parents to ask this life-saving question

Pippa Howarth

Content warning: This post discusses the tragic death of a child –  Peter and Catherine Howarth lost their daughter Pippa to blood poisoning when she was just 3 years old. Peter’s on a quest to prevent other sepsis deaths and has some important advice for parents of sick children.

Swift decline

Sepsis – also known as blood poisoning – is a potentially life-threatening reaction to an infection in which the body attacks its own organs and tissues.

UK dad-of-three Peter said Pippa had been unwell for a few days, and after a call to a UK government health advice line, she was admitted to hospital. Pippa was then diagnosed with pneumonia, with no mention of sepsis at all.

“They checked on her and there was no mention of sepsis, then off they went. I sat with her half an hour after this point in the room, just holding her hand. I was holding her hand when she stopped breathing. That was it.”

“I was hustled out, the crash teams came in. She died before my wife got there. After about 20 minutes I was allowed back in the room, and that’s when my life changed,” Peter told the Huffington Post.

A robust child

Prior to her death, Pippa had generally been what Peter described as a “robust” child. Once she became sick, she was simply lethargic with a high temperature.

“It was genuinely no more sinister than that,” he said.

“What people don’t know about sepsis is the speed and how quickly it changes a life,” Peter explained to the Huffington Post. “Pippa went in [to the hospital] at 7 p.m., and she died by 4 a.m. That’s how quickly it takes a life.”

A chance to fight

Pippa died just over a week after the Howarths welcomed their third child, a little boy called Elliott. It’s hard to fathom what they’ve been through – and inspiring to see their response is to help others avoid similar pain.

“Pippa was a little ray of sunshine and a bundle of mischief. At just three years old she had so much love of life, and brought sunshine and sparkle into the lives of me, my wife Catherine and her big brother Aubrey. Only 10 days after becoming the most excited girl in the world with the arrival of her little brother Elliott, Pippa was taken away from us all overnight on 10th April 2014,” Peter writes on the family’s fundraising page – which honours Pippa’s short life and benefits Child Bereavement UK.

Could it be sepsis?

He hopes to raise further awareness of this terrible condition, by sharing their family’s story.

“Sepsis – I didn’t hear that word until she had died. We didn’t get a chance to fight, she was gone before we could try. We didn’t have a chance, she didn’t have a chance. It was a flick of a switch and she was gone.”

“Everybody blames themselves when a child dies but with this disease, you don’t have a chance unless you spot it early. You can’t always spot the symptoms. I don’t know if we ever could have stopped it, unless we said: ‘Could it be sepsis?’”

It’s that exact question – “Could it be sepsis?” – that Peter’s urging other parents of sick children to ask. He wants parents and carers to know how quickly things can go very wrong, when sepsis is involved.

“If by doing any type of awareness raising I can help one person ask the question and save one life, that’s one family that doesn’t have to go through the hell we’ve had to go through.


Spotting Sepsis

Ask “Could it be sepsis?” if any of these symptoms are present:

  • Your child’s breathing is very rapid
  • Your child is having convulsions or ‘fits’
  • Your child looks mottled, pale or blueish
  • Your child has a rash that doesn’t fade when you press it
  • Your child is lethargic or difficult to wake
  • Your child feels abnormally cold to touch

With that said, there is no single sign of sepsis, which can occur as the result of any infection. It can initially look like flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection.

The UK Sepsis Trust advises asking “Could it be sepsis?” and seeking immediate medical attention if:

Slurred speech or confusion
Extreme shivering or muscle pain
Passing no urine (in a day)
Severe breathlessness
It feels like you’re going to die
Skin mottled or discoloured

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