President Michael D Higgins will this week present a presidential distinguished service award to an Irish couple based in New York whose work to highlight the medical condition of sepsis has saved an estimated 16,000 lives in the state.
Ciarán and Orlaith Staunton will be honoured for their work on the End Sepsis campaign which they established following the death of their son Rory in 2012.
The couple were recommended to the Government for the award by the most powerful politician in the United States senate, majority leader Chuck Schumer.
On foot of the work of the Stauntons, authorities in New York introduced rules for hospitals – known as Rory’s regulations – which set out how doctors should look out for sepsis in patients presenting for treatment.
The presidential distinguished service award was established by the Government following the 2011 Global Irish Economic Forum as a means to recognise the contribution of members of the Irish diaspora.
The awards will be presented by the president at Áras an Uachtaráin on Thursday in a ceremony which is also scheduled to be attended by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It is a life-threatening medical emergency. Without timely treatment, sepsis can very quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death.
Ciarán Staunton told The Irish Times that although well over 250,000 people in the United States died from sepsis each year, little was known about it publicly.
He said he had not heard about it before his son’s death.
Rory Staunton was a big 5 foot, nine inch 12 -year-old boy when he fell in school while playing basketball in March 2012 and cut his arm.
That night he began to feel ill and went to a hospital emergency department. He was later sent home without sepsis being diagnosed. However, bacteria had entered his bloodstream and his condition deteriorated. Within a few days Rory had died.
“The Tuesday night before he died, I bought him a pizza and asked what type he wanted. The following Tuesday, I was in a funeral home and they asked me what coffin I wanted,” Mr Staunton said.
The Stauntons subsequently established End Sepsis – the legacy of Rory Staunton, to highlight awareness of the condition and to improve measures to protect against it.
Orlaith Staunton said deaths from sepsis were preventable and treatable. “Rory could have been saved”, she said.
She said doctors were not waiting for a cure for sepsis to be developed. The condition can be treated with antibiotics and fluids if detected in time.
She said after their son died, they discovered that sepsis was the cause of death for hundreds of thousands of people each year but had been overlooked in the United States as well as in Ireland and the UK.
She said they subsequently started work to have sepsis protocols introduced.
On foot of extensive coverage of the case of Rory and lobbying by the Stauntons, authorities in New York introduced new regulations for hospitals.
Orlaith Staunton said mandatory sepsis protocols were essentially a checklist to be followed when somebody arrived into a hospital showing specific symptoms they ensured that correct treatment was given for sepsis.
On foot of their campaign the lives of about 16,000 people in New York were saved after the regulations were put in place.
“If you had national mandatory protocols just think how many people would be saved,” Ciarán Staunton said. “Cost-wise sepsis cost the American medical system and taxpayers $60 billion per year and 370,000 lives. If we as a regular couple in New York could get this through and signed into law by governor (Andrew) Cuomo at the time, mandated for all the hospitals, what could federal Government do.”
Mr Staunton said the signs of sepsis included fever and chills, rapid breathing, mottled skin, extreme pain as well as a feeling of being very, very sick.
Mr Staunton is from Mayo and arrived in the United States in the early 1980s and later owned a number of bars in New York. His wife is from Drogheda, Co Louth and has also been in the United States since the 1980s. She is the sister of Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd and New York publisher Niall O’Dowd.
Mr Staunton is a very well known figure in the Irish community in New York.
He was closely involved in the efforts by a group of young Irish people in New York in the 1980s to secure immigration reform and legal status for thousands of undocumented workers under the Donnelly and Morrison visa programmes.
He was a senior figure in Irish Northern Aid in New York which supported the republican movement prisoners in Ireland.
He was the liaison figure between Irish republican supporters and broader Irish American figures such as businessman Chuck Feeney to back an initiative which ultimately led to the involvement of the White House in the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday agreement.