Etta James Hospitalized with Serious Infection

Etta James, 72, has been hospitalized at Riverside Community Hospital in southern California with a serious infection.  The R & B legend is probably best known for her signature song, “At Last.” According to her son, Donto James, his mother had been admitted to a treatment center about a month ago to deal with a dependency on painkillers and over-the-counter medicine. She was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease a year ago.  D. James says that this is the reason his mother made headlines a year ago for making angry remarks about Beyonce singing “At Last” to the Obamas at their Inauguration Ball.  James says she has been “battling for her life and sanity.”

About a week ago, she was transferred to the hospital when she became septic from a urinary tract infection.  Donto does not known when his mother may be released from the hospital.

Infections of the urinary tract are the second most common type of infection in the body. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) account for about 8.3 million doctor visits each year. Women are especially prone to UTIs. One woman in five develops a UTI during her lifetime.

The urinary tract is the system that takes wastes from the blood and carries them out of the body in the form of urine. The urinary tract includes

  • the kidneys-where urine is formed by filtering blood
  • the ureters – which lead urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • the bladder- where urine is stored until eliminated
  • and the urethra- the tube from the bladder to the outside.

Normally, urine is sterile. It is usually free of bacteria, viruses, and fungi but does contain fluids, salts, and waste products. An infection occurs when tiny organisms, usually bacteria from the digestive tract, cling to the opening of the urethra and begin to multiply.  Most infections arise from one type of bacteria, Escherichia coli (E. coli), which normally lives in the colon. (You can learn more about this organism in our story about Elton John.)

The symptoms of a bladder infection include:

  • Cloudy or bloody urine, which may have a foul or strong odor
  • Low fever (not always present)
  • Pain or burning with urination
  • Pressure or cramping in the lower abdomen (usually in the midline) or back
  • Strong need to urinate often, even right after the bladder has been emptied

Although generally a UTI is a localized infection, occasionally germs can get into the bloodstream.   This is called bacteremia. If the number of bacteria is small, the body’s immune system will take care of it.  However, if the number is higher or if the organism is more virulent (likely to cause disease), then the patient has sepsis, or septicemia.  Septicemia can begin with spiking fevers, chills, rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate. The person looks very ill.

The symptoms can rapidly progress to shock with fever or decreased body temperature (hypothermia), falling blood pressure, confusion or other changes in mental status, and blood clotting problems. Low blood pressure can lead to organ shut down, such as kidney and liver failure.

Treatment requires hospitalization, often in an intensive care unit.  Fluids and medicines are given by an IV to maintain the blood pressure.Oxygen will be given. Antibiotics are used to treat the infection. Plasma or other blood products may be given to correct any clotting abnormalities.

For more information:

Urinary Tract Infection
Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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