‘They told us she was going to die’
Following near-death experience, Marc and Audrey Leishman advocate for sepsis awareness
June 19, 2019
By Doug Milne, PGATOUR.COM
- June 19, 2019
Inside the PGA TOUR
The Leishmans Begin Again Foundation
As far as the notion of fate goes, Marc and Audrey Leishman’s story makes a strong argument for the power of aligned stars.
Even at a time when death seemed determined to cut those stars from the sky.
Aligned stars, though, is more than some preordained, cosmic phenomenon. The course of one’s life is dictated largely by people encountered along the way. The relationship experience has a pretty impressive way of directing a life.
Not only is that experience working elegantly for Marc and Audrey, but through unlikely and terrifying circumstances, it also led to another special relationship that would help pave the way for their mission in life.
Marc and Audrey Leishman met many moons ago at a bar, arguably not the best spot for lasting relationships to start. Marc was in Williamsburg, Va. for a now-Korn Ferry Tour Monday qualifier. Audrey was there, at the Green Leafe Cafe, with friends gearing up for a concert.
“I'd had a few beers when I got the courage to go off and talk to her,” Marc joked. “It was a pretty quiet bar, and we just hit it off while I was drinking beers.”
Theirs would become one that defied the “met-in-a-bar” relationship odds.
By now, many people are at least familiar with the story of how Audrey nearly lost her life four years ago. What many don’t know, though, is that she nearly lost it because of, well, what people don’t know.
Dr. Carl Flatley’s daughter wasn’t expected to die.
Marc Leishman’s wife wasn’t expected to live.
But despite the dichotomy of those expectations for two men who had never met, their lives became permanently intertwined.
A retired dentist from Dunedin, Fla., Dr. Flatley made a career of root canals that lasted nearly three decades. As such, he was all too familiar with blood and infections. Or, so he believed.
In late April of 2002, his daughter, Erin, underwent a hemorrhoidectomy, a routine surgical procedure done on an outpatient basis.
“She was as healthy as can be,” Dr. Flatley remembered. “In fact, I had bought her a jet ski the day before, for when it was all over as a symbol of how bright the future was going to be.”
Four excruciatingly painful days later, at the age of 23, Erin Flatley was dead. The cause of death was deemed to be septic shock syndrome.
“She had just gotten out of college and had her whole life ahead of her,” Dr. Flatley said. “She was as happy as can be.”
Stunned, Dr. Flatley embarked on a tireless mission to learn more about a disease he came to know as sepsis. The colloquial term for sepsis is blood poisoning. Realizing his daughter’s life was taken by something no one knew about or understood, he began the American Sepsis Alliance in 2004. In 2007, with full governance, the advocacy group based in San Diego, Calif., became known as the Sepsis Alliance.
The mission of Dr. Flatley’s creation was then – and remains today – to educate the public on what he said has become the third-leading cause of death in the United States.
“Someone asked me once why I decided to start the Sepsis Alliance,” Dr. Flatley said. “I told them I didn’t decide to start it, it selected me to start. I practiced dentistry. I did root canals for 25 years. Before that, I was in the service, Vietnam. I never, ever in my training once heard the word sepsis.”
It’s Dr. Flatley’s contention that 80 percent of sepsis cases are preventable. With vaccinations, attention to cleanliness and a basic understanding of the disease, sepsis wouldn’t claim the staggering number of lives it does. More common than heart attacks, sepsis occurs when the body’s efforts to fight infections result in the immune system’s widespread damage of organs and tissues. Simply, the body’s natural reaction to help save a life very often ends a life.
Dr. Flatley explained that if an individual dies from infection, said individual, in fact, dies from sepsis.
“The flu, pneumonia, an infected knee or even a cut on the finger….it’s sepsis,” he said. “It was reported that Mary Tyler Moore died of pneumonia. It was sepsis. Muhammad Ali was reported to have died of Parkinson’s. Not true. He died of sepsis. Christopher Reeve, Jim Henson. All sepsis.”
The question then begs that if sepsis is the camouflaged culprit of so many deaths, why is it not being confronted much more aggressively and featured in every medical journal?
“One of the physicians on our board believes that only about 10 percent of doctors even say the word, because if they say it, they have to explain it to the patient who has never heard of it,” Dr. Flatley said.
When the Sepsis Alliance officially began a decade ago, Dr. Flatley said that only 17 percent of the population in the United States was aware of sepsis. People who had heard the word, he contended, couldn’t really explain it.
‘We were told it was too late’
The silver lining to a close call – bordering on fatal – for Marc and Audrey became sepsis awareness.
In April of 2015, Audrey felt herself coming down with what seemed to be just a bad cold. Like Dr. Flatley’s daughter, Audrey was in perfect health. But, when her alarming temperature of 102 didn’t relent after two days, she went to a doctor. With a blood pressure that had dropped to 90/30 and a heart rate in the 140s, doctors considered sepsis. She was rushed to the hospital, where she became unable to breathe on her own.
Meanwhile, Marc, who was in Augusta, Ga., preparing for the Masters, got on the first flight home. When he arrived, he was told to prepare for that which no one can truly prepare.
“All I remember was a number of hanging antibiotic bags, with fluids being injected into her,” Leishman said. “Eventually, we were told it was too late. They told us she was going to die. But, somehow, she survived. It happens very quickly. We were lucky with the doctors we had, because they did know about sepsis and could respond accordingly.”
Upon tracing their steps back, complications from a blood-related issue earlier in the week for Audrey had, in fact, been the onset of the medical emergency.
Audrey was among the lucky few stricken with sepsis. She lived.
Following the ordeal, the Leishmans began the Begin Again Foundation in 2016, which works to bring life’s most pressing needs to families experiencing medical and life crises.
“When I heard about the Leishmans and what they were doing, we established the Erin K. Flatley Spirit Award,” said Dr. Flatley. “When it came to Audrey, who survived sepsis, I wanted to honor someone who not only did their job, but who went above and beyond to give back. What they are doing is remarkable.”
Marc and Audrey Leishman giving back through proceeds from beer
“What Dr. Flatley is doing is amazing,” said Marc. “We went to New York to accept the award. Audrey got it for surviving and then helping get the word out there about sepsis. We met a lot of survivors, which was amazing, because you don’t get to meet many survivors. For her to discuss recovery was huge. It’s amazing what they are doing.”
Education is the pivotal word when describing the Alliance. It does not treat, but acts as an advocate group to get word out that sepsis is a medical emergency. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Society for Critical Care Medicine classified sepsis as a medical care emergency. As was the case with Dr. Flatley’s daughter in 2002, though, a lack of education across the board remains a smoking gun.
According to Dr. Flatley, the government has now involved itself upon the realization that sepsis is the most expensive disease billed to Medicare. Hospitals are now beginning to be penalized for due diligence failure.
“Many people still can’t really explain it, but at least we’re making tremendous progress,” Dr. Flatley said. “If I died tomorrow, I could say I have achieved my mission. But, there’s still a long way to go. And, through this, the memory of my daughter will live on.”
So, too, will Audrey Leishman.
After getting sick, for Audrey, what really became important was making her experience worthwhile.
“That was the main motivation behind starting the Begin Again Foundation,” Audrey said. “We help sepsis survivors, toxic shock survivors and acute respiratory distress syndrome survivors with $1,000 grants.”
The Begin Again Foundation also incorporates a LEISHline called “Butterfly Blessings” at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Virginia Beach. There, help has been provided to over 2,400 families for such things as bus passes, Wal-Mart gift cards and rent assistance. In addition, more than 1,000 Period Planners have been donated to five homeless shelters. Eight families battling rare childhood cancers in Australia have also been helped.
In May, Marc and Audrey raised more than $400,000 at the New Beginnings Gala and Golf Tournament.
An additional step to raise funds for those in need is by way of Leishman Lager, a beer originally created by Marc in 2016. It is brewed and sold at Back Bay Brewing Company in Virginia Beach, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Begin Again Foundation.
“Audrey got sick four years ago, managed to survive, and from that we started the Begin Again Foundation,” said Marc. “And, a few months after that, we were looking at ways that we might be able to raise money. Having a beer where proceeds could go to the Begin Again Foundation seemed like a pretty natural fit.”
After all, Marc and Audrey’s relationship did start over a beer.
“Our relationship did start in a bar, so it's pretty cool that we now have this to support what was a pretty rough time,” said Marc. “We’ve brought something really good from it. The families that we're helping, it can save them from losing their house, or it can help them just think about getting well rather than how are they going to pay for the electricity bill in the middle of winter?
“It's awesome, and the way that it all started is even better.”