Thrive by IU Health

June 02, 2021

Lab worker driven by niece’s death from sepsis

Lab worker driven by niece’s death from sepsis

Thousands of children die each year as a result of severe sepsis. Matthew “Trevor” O’Hern’s niece was one of them. Now, O’Hern, who works in the IU Health pathology lab, is dedicated to educating others about the impact of sepsis.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

Like the lifeblood flowing through his veins, there is a number of different directions Matthew “Trevor” O’Hern’s life and career could have taken him. In the end, he chose to work at IU Health. He didn’t choose just any job; he chose a job that ultimately connected him in a very personal way to his 18-month-old niece.

Matthew "Trevor" O'Hern holding Josslyn

Josslyn died June 28, 2015. Her family didn’t know at the time what her autopsy later determined. Josslyn died from a Group B Streptococcal infection resulting in Septic Shock. They also learned that only a test would have identified the sepsis.

Sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. It leads to tissue damage, organ failure and death. According to the Sepsis Alliance, sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, urinary tract infection and even COVID-19. The Alliance reports in the U.S. 75,000 children develop sepsis each year or about 200 a day. The number increases to eight percent every year. Almost 7,000 of those children die – more than those who succumb to pediatric cancers. The Alliance further reports that sepsis can affect people of all ages. Those 65 and older are 13 times more likely to become infected than those younger.

“At the time, of Josslyn’s death I wasn’t sure what Sepsis was, nor how life-threatening it was,” said O’Hern, 26. A month after his niece’s funeral, O’Hern began training as a pathology lab courier for IU Health, learning about specimen handling, storage, and tracking. The job was a natural fit for him. Since high school he worked as a delivery driver for Montpelier Glove & Safety Products, close to his hometown of Blackford, Ind.

“It was on the day of Josslyn’s viewing that I received a call informing me that I had been chosen as a top candidate for the courier position with IU Health. Given the timing and circumstances, I wasn’t terribly excited about the news. I also didn’t realize how this would change my whole perspective on where I wanted to dedicate my life,” said O’Hern.

It was on the first day of his courier route that O’Hern learned the results of Josslyn’s autopsy. Until then, his family thought she spiked a fever caused by teething, fell asleep, and never woke up.

One of the stops on O’Hern’s route was IU Health Blackford Hospital – the same hospital where Josslyn would have gone had the family known the seriousness of her illness.

“As I picked up specimens, I asked the lab tech what they were testing for and what it meant for the patient. I was told they were testing for bacterial infections in the blood that would cause the patient to go septic. This hit me hard knowing that this test could have saved Josslyn’s life. At this moment, I realized the importance of my role with IU Health,” said O’Hern.

The realization was so moving that O’Hern began a mission to learn all that he could about sepsis. He didn’t stop there. He learned about “Gabby’s Law” (Illinois Senate Bill 2403) named in honor of a 5-year-old girl who developed an infection from an undetected tick bite that led to sepsis. It was her parents, Liz and Tony Galbo, who advocated for a law requiring health care facilities to become better prepared to recognize and treat adult and pediatric patients with sepsis and septic shock.

O’Hern reached out to the Galbos to learn all that he could about developing a similar law in Indiana. He met with a state representative and a law was drafted. Last May Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed “Josslyn’s Law,” establishing sepsis screening guidelines for all medical facilities, and a sepsis task force to provide recommendations to the Indiana State Department of Health on best practices for diagnosing and treating the condition. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, task force meetings have been stalled, said O’Hern. He hopes to see guidelines implemented in the near future.

In the meantime, he continues to advocate for education. September is Sepsis Awareness Month and on Sept. 26, O’Hern will support the annual Jeffrey Davis 5K, an Indiana fundraiser for the Sepsis Alliance. Last year, O’Hern was presented with the “Sepsis Alliance Heroes Award” recognizing his contributions toward sepsis awareness and education. He was also presented an IU Health “Values Leadership Award,” recognizing his personal and professional efforts to demonstrate care toward others.

Two years ago, O’Hern was promoted as a dispatcher within the IU Health pathology lab. He still drives the routes when they are short handed but for the most part he acts as a liaison between the drivers and the clients.

“From the time I learned about the specimens and the testing that I was responsible for as a courier, my job became more than just a job,” said O’Hern. “I jumped in and began to look at ways to help my department and improve the efficiency and the health care we provide at IU Health,” he added. After graduating from Blackford High School in 2012, he started taking classes toward a career in business administration. Now he’s switched things up and is taking classes toward a degree in health care administration.

“For a long time I thought of working in health care as more of a nurse or doctor role caring for the sick. I didn’t see myself doing that,” said O’Hern. “Now I see how important my role is and I want to stay on the path – hopefully with IU Health working in some sort of management role.”