Sepsis: The Little-Known Illness That Took a Marin Tennis Star
An unexpected complication took the life of tennis champion Ken Flach. His widow, Christina, is on a mission to help raise awareness of this deadly condition in hopes that the information can save lives.
Although it is the third most common cause of death in the U.S., sepsis is one of the least-known but most deadly killers out there. This life-threatening illness is caused by the body’s reaction to an infection in the bloodstream. According to the Sepsis Alliance, 270,000 people die from sepsis every year in this country — more than from prostate cancer, breast cancer and AIDS combined.
Sepsis is remarkable in that anyone is susceptible, no matter how healthy or strong they may be. For Christina Flach, having her athletic husband taken from her so quickly was a complete shock. “We took him to the hospital on Wednesday, and by Monday he was taken off life support. It was so tragic,” she says. “I decided to use my grief to raise awareness. I didn’t want anyone else to die and I didn’t want his death to be in vain. It has been part of my healing process.”
Christina runs her own business in Novato, Pretty Girl Makeup. Her late husband, Ken Flach, was a world-renowned tennis pro. Ken was a number one doubles partner in 1985 with Robert Seguso. The pair won 28 titles, including championships at the United States Open in 1985 and at Wimbledon in 1987 and 1988, and won a gold medal for the United States at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
What’s so unique about sepsis is that when action is taken quickly enough, it can be stopped. According to the Sepsis Alliance, mortality from sepsis increases by as much as 8 percent for every hour that treatment is delayed. As many as 80 percent of sepsis deaths could be prevented with rapid diagnosis and treatment. “There needs to be higher and stricter protocols around sepsis,” Christina says. “It can be cured with the proper antibiotic, but there is a golden hour in which to diagnose. I want people to know when to ask, when to push. People can be empowered with knowledge.”
Sepsis can develop from any infection, no matter how small. It can be detected by a blood test. It’s survivable if detected and treated early.
According to the CDC, signs and symptoms of sepsis include:
- High heart rate
- Fever, shivering or feeling very cold
- Confusion or disorientation
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme pain
- Clammy or sweaty skin
“If you see any of these signs, go to the doctor and get the test,” she says. “You don’t even have 24 hours. If my husband couldn’t survive, no one could.”
Read our 2011 Q&A with Ken Flach here.