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Tracey Corcoran with her children, Sophie and William.

Families who lost loved ones to sepsis call on HSE to start 'aggressive' awareness campaign

Almost 3,000 people die with sepsis in Ireland in a year.

FAMILIES IN IRELAND who have lost loved ones to sepsis are calling on the HSE to implement an “aggressive awareness campaign” to reduce the amount of deaths caused by the condition. 

Just under 3,000 people with sepsis die in Ireland’s hospitals each year. Roughly, that means seven people die from the condition each day on average (according to Health Executive figures from 2021). 

Yet for many, the first time they hear about the sepsis is when it affects a friend or family member. 

Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It happens when an existing infection triggers a chain reaction in the body, which can lead to septic shock. 

A high heart rate, disorientation, pain, a fever, shortness of breath, and sweaty skin are all symptoms of the condition. 

Blood, lab, and imaging tests can detect sepsis cases. The most common method of treatment involveS antibiotics, the use of intravenous fluids, and vasopressors which increase blood pressure. 

It is crucial that treatment starts as soon as possible. 

Families in Ireland are now calling on the HSE to increase awareness of sepsis not just amongst the general public, but within healthcare settings themselves. 

Lil Red’s Legacy Sepsis Awareness Campaign is currently working with the health service to ensure that a leaflet on the condition is present in every general practice across the country, which is currently not the case.

Finglas man Joe Hughes looked up sepsis for the first time when he was informed that it had caused his 15-year-old son Sean’s death, two weeks after it happened. 

Joe found the information on the HSE’s website at the time “difficult to understand, and off putting.”

In the five years since their son’s death, Joe and his wife Karen Phoenix have made it there life’s mission to make sure that other parents are aware of sepsis and the dangers it poses, so that they don’t end up in the same position. 

1208931361-IMG-20230407-WA0084 Sean Hughes, also known as Lil Red, was known for his love of performance and his larger than life personality.

Sean was a fit and healthy young person with a passion for rap music and performing. At just 15 years of age, he had performed at the Aviva Stadium, the National Concert Hall, and Croke Park under the alias ‘Lil Red’. 

Two days before Sean died in Temple Street Hospital on 12 January, 2018, a few hours after he suffered a cardiac arrest while watching TV with his mum at home, he went to his GP to be seen for a cold and a persistent cough. 

The GP gave Sean some mild antibiotics. She did not consider that sepsis could have been the cause of his illness. 

Joe and Karen did not get to be at Sean’s side when he died, as the doctor’s were working on him, in an effort to save his life. They knew the situation was dire, as hospital staff had told them they should gather family and friends. 

When a member of staff informed them that Sean had passed away, his parents struggled to comprehend the news. 

joe and karen Joe and Karen, Sean's parents, have fought tirelessly to raise sepsis awareness.

“There are no words for what we went through. How could there be?

“On the Monday, he had flu like symptoms. We gave him paracetamol and a lemsip. On the Tuesday he was coughing severely. The Wednesday he improved a little, but we could tell he was out of sorts. He went to the GP, and got antibiotics. On the Friday, my wife called me down the stairs. 

“She had been talking with Sean when he went silent, and become unresponsive. I got him on the floor and performed CPR straight away. We had no idea what had gone wrong,” Joe said. 

Sean’s family still get flashbacks to being in the hospital waiting room when they were told he hadn’t made it. At that stage, neither the ambulance staff, or the doctors in the hospital had mentioned anything about sepsis. 

“We go through it every day. We speak about our son all of the time. His bedroom has stayed the same, his wardrobe is full of the designer clothes he loved – he was mad into his fashion and any way he could express himself. His TV is still there. My wife changes the bed sheets every week,” Joe said. 

Three months after Sean’s death, Joe and his wife set up the Lil Red’s Legacy Sepsis Awareness campaign.

Over the last five years, the family have tirelessly worked to raise awareness of sepsis, through visiting schools, lobbying the HSE, Hospitals and politicians to do more to reduce deaths related to the condition, and holding events. 

For World Sepsis Day, which is today, they have produced a leaflet in collaboration with the HSE which informs people on symptoms of sepsis, which can now be downloaded from their site. 

They have also produced a poster than will be advertised on hundreds of Dublin Buses, and they are holding an event in Phoenix Park tonight, where the Phoenix monument will be lit up red, in memory of their red-haired son Sean. 


They know that his friends will be there to support them and each other. 

“Everything we do now is aimed at preventing further sepsis deaths. We have had over 30 families contact us and say that our campaigning let to a sepsis diagnosis, and saved a life near to them. That is amazing.

“We are Ireland’s only dedicated sepsis campaign, and we have managed to achieve that. If the HSE puts its mind to it, and focuses on introducing mandatory protocols for hospitals to test for sepsis when symptoms are present, and for GPs to refer people to emergency departments, how many more lives could be saved?” Joe said. 

James Corcoran works for the Irish Sepsis Foundation, a charity that works tirelessly to advocate for people who are impacted by sepsis, and to raise awareness of the condition. 

In 2020 he lost his sister Tracey, a 37 year old mum of two from Cork, to sepsis. 

James said that Tracey was a devoted mother, who would have done anything for her children Sophie and William. 

WhatsApp Image 2023-09-13 at 14.31.36 (2) Tracey, Sophie and William.

Tracey had an extremely rare form of rheumatoid arthritis, also known as adult-onset Still’s disease, which weakened her immune system. 

In the summer of 2020, Tracey began to feel unwell. Her family initially believed that this was due to her condition. However her health continued to deteriorate, and eventually she went for an appointment at SouthDoc. 

She presented with a high temperature, but it was thought once again that this was related to her rheumatoid arthritis. 

In the early hours of a Sunday morning, an ambulance was called to her home. She was put on a drip, as the doctor’s believed she was suffering from gastroenteritis, which they thought would pass. 

By the Monday morning, as her condition continued to worsen, a decision was made to admit Tracey to hospital, shortly after, she was put into intensive care. 

By the Tuesday, however, she was removed from intensive care, and her condition then went quickly downhill. The following day, septic shock had taken over her body, and she was put on life support. 

“It was extremely difficult for us as a family, and especially for my niece and nephew, as this was during lockdown, so we were trying to get information about what was happening to Tracey over the phone. We couldn’t go in and be with her. 

“Sepsis can mimic the symptoms of other conditions, so it is very difficult to catch on time, but every hour, and every minute counts.”

On the evening of 20 June, 2020, Tracey lost her life. 

James and his family were left “completely heartbroken”. 

Since his sister’s death, he has become heavily involved in campaigning with the Sepsis Foundation of Ireland. 

WhatsApp Image 2023-09-13 at 14.31.36 (1) James and his sister Tracey in an old photo.

He became of board member of the charity in November 2022, and he has become involved in boosting the foundation’s social media presence and outreach. 

“It feels like the tide is turning on sepsis awareness in Ireland, and we need to see that result in a reductions of deaths. Now, we have hospitals reaching out to us, wanting to see how they can further train their staff. We ran a competition with the Europa Hotel, where people had to name a symptom of sepsis to win a stay there, and we had well over 5000 applicants. The response was crazy. 

“We are aiming to get in front of Dáil Éireann, and to advocate for some policies to be put in place on sepsis awareness in health settings. There is no better time to do it than now. Everyone is involved in this fight for the same reason, they don’t want to see another family lose someone to sepsis when it is preventable,” James added. 

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