Dr. David Sweet © Courtesy of VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation
A patient’s heart starts to beat—fast. They go from feeling like they have a fever to suddenly getting shakes and chills. Their skin is warm, clammy and sweaty. Breathing starts to become laboured. They’re confused, disoriented, in pain or discomfort, and a rash appears seemingly out of nowhere.
This is the body’s response to sepsis, which in itself is an extreme reaction to an infection. When you have an infection, the immune system works to fight it. But sometimes, the immune system stops fighting the infection and instead starts damaging normal tissue and organs, leading to widespread inflammation throughout the body.
Without treatment, the issue will only get more severe until, finally, a patient enters into septic shock, where organs start to fail. This will likely lead to death.
Thankfully, at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), patients who experience sepsis are in the hands of one of the most renowned sepsis clinician-scientists in the world—Dr. David Sweet.
Dr. David Sweet is an international educator and expert in the field of sepsis and septic shock management. He is currently the clinical lead for sepsis with Health Quality BC, the Executive Medical Director of Health Quality BC, and a dual-trained physician in emergency medicine and critical care medicine, currently practicing at VGH.
In addition to treating patients suffering from sepsis directly in the ICU at VGH, Dr. Sweet’s work also looks at the problem on a macro, province-wide level of care. In this work, he spends his time training and educating fellow physicians around the province to utilize best practice protocols he has helped create.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the emergency departments around British Columbia to help recognize sepsis. Not only early recognition and early treatment but also early transfer to a higher level of care if required,” said Dr. Sweet.
For this work, Dr. Sweet has received a Global Sepsis Award from the Global Sepsis Alliance.
And no one knows the power of these protocols Dr. Sweet created, or the direct clinical care, better than Lorne Warburton. He suffered from one of the deadliest diseases on the planet and survived, thanks to the remarkable mind of Dr. Sweet.
Lorne had always been a healthy guy. Even entering his 50s, he had long kept physically fit.
In mid-March 2023, Lorne started to feel sick—body aches, low energy, and headaches—but he thought nothing much of it other than perhaps it was COVID-19. He tested for that a couple of times, but it was negative. After a few days, he moved on and went on vacation with his family to Mexico.
“It just, it felt normal, really,” said Lorne. “Then we got home and got back to normal, everyday life. And then the body aches and pains came back.”
Lorne can recall waking up that fateful Saturday in March, barely able to move and breathe and completely drenched in sweat. He had his wife, Anna, immediately drive to their local clinic in Pemberton, B.C., where he experienced one of the most harrowing experiences someone can have.
Lorne had entered the Pemberton Clinic already in septic shock. His organs were starting to fail. His oxygen levels were life-threateningly low. And no one could exactly explain why.
Thankfully, the team at Pemberton Clinic knew what steps to take for someone in Lorne’s state, thanks to protocols Dr. Sweet helped establish. He was immediately flown to another hospital for treatment unavailable at a local clinic. Here, Lorne went into cardiac arrest for 11 minutes.
The team followed the next steps on the protocol and decided Lorne needed more help for his complex condition, specifically the donor-funded ECMO—a vital heart and lung machine—and skills only available at VGH.
The team called ahead and got in touch with Dr. David Sweet.
But looking at Lorne’s bloodwork, Dr. Sweet couldn’t help but recall two vivid memories. The first was his time growing up in Alberta, where rodents caused a very specific and rare disease. The second was conferences he attended where sepsis expert physicians were challenged with difficult cases to compete in front of an audience to determine what infection a hypothetical patient suffered. The list of issues and bloodwork reflected what Dr. Sweet was reading from Lorne’s sheet.
Realization dawned on him
“When I was on the phone, I’m like, ‘I think this might be a hantavirus case,’” recalled Dr. Sweet.
Hantavirus is a virus found in the urine, saliva, or droppings of infected deer mice and some other wild rodents. If contracted, the mortality rate is approximately 40 per cent higher if the patient ends up on ECMO.
With a diagnosis in hand, treatment started right away at VGH. Lorne was placed on ECMO for five days to allow his heart and lungs to rest, spent another five days in the ICU while his body recovered, and five more in the hospital until he was discharged.
When Lorne awoke and was told what happened and what the diagnosis was, it suddenly made sense. He recalled cleaning up his attic at home. There were mice droppings around, and it’s very possible he was exposed to the virus there.
A return to normalcy
Lorne has survived one of the rarest and most deadly diseases. Yet recovery is still ongoing.
To this day, Lorne continues to receive care at home through Vancouver Community Health Services for rehabilitation. He hopes to return to his old self soon with time and effort.
“I figure between 40 to 50 people had their hands on helping me to be where I am today. Doctors, nurses, specialists, people doing x-rays, ultrasounds, all that, 40 to 50 people just to keep me alive,” said Lorne. “My wife has her husband, and my children have their father because of them. I really am forever grateful.”
Powered by donations, VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation is proud to support the career of Dr. David Sweet. Because of individuals like him, VGH can be a world leader in health care.
Donate today at vghfoundation.ca/heroes, and together, we will transform health care.
VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation is Vancouver Coastal Health’s primary philanthropic partner, raising funds for specialized adult health services and research for all British Columbians.