In the Wake of Madonna’s Recent Health Scare, Here’s What You Need to Know About Bacterial Infections and Sepsis


Madonna — seen here in 2022 — was taken to hospital on June 24 with a life-threatening bacterial infection. Photo: Cassy Athena/Getty Images

When Madonna was being treated in intensive care recently for what her manager described as “a serious bacterial infection,” Mac Horsburgh, 74, knew what that meant.

When I read about Madonna, I knew you don’t end up in ICU being intubated because you’re dealing with an infection. You’re dealing with an infection that has become septic. Madonna gets sick with sepsis and they don’t even mention sepsis.”

“It’s a huge public awareness issue, particularly with the aging population, because it peaks in that population,” says Dr. Alison Fox-Robichaud, McMaster University professor and critical care clinician who leads a national sepsis research network to improve recognition, treatment and recovery.

“For people who end up in ICU, like Madonna, the mortality rate is 20 to 30 per cent,” she says, “One in five will not survive. Another 50 per cent will not survive the next five years.”

Madonna was found unconscious on June 24 and was taken by ambulance to ICU where she was intubated. She had battled a low-grade fever for a month before she collapsed, TMZ reported. Sources familiar with the situation told TMZ that Madonna mostly ignored her symptoms and never got checked out by a doctor because she was laser focused on rehearsing for her upcoming tour.

While she was in ICU, her relatives were “preparing for the worst,” a family member told the DailyMail.

“No one really knew which direction this was going to turn. Everyone believed that we may lose her and that has been the reality of the situation.”

This week Madonna thanked her fans for their support with an Instagram post.

“I have felt your love. I’m on the road to recovery … My focus now is my health and getting stronger and I assure you, I’ll be back with you as soon as I can! The current plan is to reschedule the North American leg of the tour and to begin in October in Europe. I couldn’t be more grateful for your care and support. Love, M.”

Photo: Madonna/Instagram


Horsburgh also knows that recovery from sepsis is not a simple process.“It was a rigorous, devastating physical experience,” he says. Around 40 per cent of sepsis survivors suffer severe and lasting effects.

When Horsburgh was 67  just a couple of years older than Madonna, who will be 65 on August 13 he too was very sick with sepsis.

After a cut in his finger filled up with fluid, he poked the cyst that formed with a pin to drain it. And then he went into a hot tub — “a cesspool of bacteria” — and his finger became infected.

The Winnipeg resident was treated by several different doctors but the infection worsened. “I had no idea that my life was potentially in danger,” he says.

Within days, he went upstairs to get ready for bed on a Sunday night and collapsed in the bathroom. “And that’s the last thing I remembered.”

He explains, “The infection had gotten into the bloodstream and weakened the artery near the pancreas, creating an aneurysm that ruptured. I had a ruptured aneurysm with infected blood pouring into my abdomen.”

Horsburgh arrived at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre by ambulance in septic shock. The aneurysm was immediately repaired by a vascular surgeon and Horsburgh was induced into a coma for ten days. He then spent three weeks in the intensive care unit and another ten days in the hospital.

“The recovery was a huge issue,” he explains. “I had to spend four months in an IV clinic getting daily IV antibiotics. I was ecstatic to be alive, but I was also in a rage over what had happened — that a simple finger infection had not gotten the right treatment and almost killed me.”

He adds, “It was six months after I got out of the hospital before anyone mentioned the word ‘sepsis’. I had to look up the word.”


Symptoms of Sepsis


Fox-Robichaud explains, “Sepsis occurs when the body’s reaction to an infection becomes life-threatening. It can be caused by any infection. It can be caused by strep, viral, pneumonia, COVID. A urinary tract infection in the elderly is classic for causing sepsis.”

What happens, she says, is the body starts to ramp up clotting and inflammation in every part. As the body’s response to infection goes haywire, organs start to fail — lungs, kidneys, brain — and blood pressure drops.

“Symptoms can include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, bowels not working. In the aging population, there may be confusion and not as much urine.”

She adds, “It’s important to be diagnosed quickly and early. Diagnosing is tricky because there is no single biomarker like there is for heart attacks. But if there’s infection plus abnormal vital signs, it’s more likely to be sepsis.”

She warns, “If there’s a fulminating bacterial infection with blood clotting in the arms or legs, limb loss is not uncommon.”

Fox-Robichaud  advises anyone who has an infection that doesn’t respond to initial treatment to ask their health care provider about sepsis. “My vision is that the patient is aware of sepsis, comes to emerge and asks the paramedic and the triage nurse, ‘Could it be sepsis?’”

She offers these tips for helping to prevent sepsis:

  • Keep vaccinations up to date, including for influenza and pneumonia
  • Keep wounds clean
  • Keep diabetes under control. “Front line cells that fight that infection don’t like sugar and don’t work as well when diabetes is not under control.”
  • Maintain a normal weight. “Being too thin with no reserve or being severely overweight may lead to worse effects from sepsis.”
  • And certainly, if, like Madonna, you experience a low-grade fever, don’t wait a month to find out what’s wrong

Fox-Robichaud adds, “If you get an infection, most of us can fight it. But for people with immune suppression, undergoing chemotherapy or steroid treatment and at risk of infection, be aware [of the risk of sepsis].”  


A Major Cause of Death


For all the lack of awareness of sepsis, it is a major cause of death for hospitalized patients. An estimated 48.9 million cases of sepsis and 11 million sepsis-related deaths were reported worldwide,” reports Sepsis Canada. This represents almost 20 per cent of all global deaths.

According to the organization, “Sepsis is the deadliest health condition in the world, killing more people globally than cancer.”

And yet, a study found that, while 61 per cent of 3,200 Canadians surveyed had heard of sepsis, less than a quarter actually knew what sepsis is, and what the signs and risk factors were.

“It’s so unfortunate that so many people are casualties of something that is preventable” says Horsburgh, who has recovered well enough to play pickleball with one of his former doctors who initially treated him for the finger infection that turned into sepsis.