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Estelle Botha

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Our beautiful, talented 15-year-old ballerina girl passed away from sepsis while she was under chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (Sepsis and Cancer)
At the time of her passing, we did not know the cause, and no-one used the word « sepsis » to help us make sense of the tragedy.

Estelle had been telling her doctor that she was not feeling well and asking for a longer respite from chemotherapy sessions, but the doctor merely stated that chemo makes one feel unwell and that she must not skip chemo sessions.

Four months into the treatment, Estelle was having a particularly difficult week, but we assumed that it was just the effects of chemo, since that is what we were told. By the Saturday of that hard week, Estelle began to vomit uncontrollably, and we phoned the emergency contact at the hospital to ask for help. We were told if we just keep her hydrated, she would be fine, but she wasn’t, and got worse. By the evening we took her to the emergency ward (an hour’s drive away) and my sick child had to walk into the hospital, accompanied by her older sister, because I was not allowed to park my car at the door and had to drive away and run back. Since she did not arrive in an ambulance, the understaffed, overworked emergency unit dismissed her as a non-emergency and the person in charge of the unit made a point of telling the staff that we must not think we are anything special (being the only white people in a government hospital in South Africa). The young, tired, doctor on call did not believe me when I pleaded with her to help my child, because in her mind, this was just another cancer patient feeling awful on chemo.

After about three hours of no help, Estelle’s heart stopped beating and they were sort of dragging their feet to do anything about it. When they got her heart beating again they finally decided to try an IV line to get the blood pressure up, but by then it was too late, and when her heart stopped the second time, they tried in vain to get it beating again.

Perhaps if the emergency personnel immediately thought « sepsis » instead of oncology patient, they might have reacted faster. Perhaps if the doctor didn’t dismiss Estelle’s pleas as if she were a naughty child trying to get out of chemo? Perhaps…
I would like to increase public awareness and improve emergency personnel training around sepsis, so that this devastating tragedy doesn’t crush another family. Estelle should not have died. Two weeks before her passing, the scans showed that the treatment was working, and her status went from « medium risk » to « early rapid responder ». She had a positive outlook and we strictly followed all the prescribed protocols to keep her safe during treatment.

Source: Petra, mother

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