Krista P.


My mother, my best friend, died of sepsis in November 2023. She had just turned 72 in the hospital. Although she had some chronic health issues, she had been doing well despite them. She had been on dialysis for the last three years, and she had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (caught so early that the doctors said they could “hardly see the tumor on the scan”). We knew she wasn’t going to live forever, but we thought there would be a slow decline, a little warning at least. No one had even talked to us about advanced directives. (Sepsis and Dialysis, Sepsis and Cancer)

Mom was still completely independent, living alone, driving herself, managing her own appointments. We loved going to museums, concerts, and lectures together, or even just a day out running errands and going to lunch. We lived a few blocks apart and popped in on each other and talked all day long.

She had just started chemo for the pancreatic cancer and had only had two infusions. She felt crummy, but the doctors said that was normal. After the second week on chemo, I was becoming increasingly worried and took her to the ER for shortness of breath and a fast heart rate. They didn’t know why she was feeling so poorly except to say that she was “having a bad reaction to the chemo.” At that point, they said she didn’t have any infections. She was cold, clammy, had dry heaves and no appetite, and she still had a fast heart rate and could not catch her breath. She kept trying to get in different positions to see if she could breathe better. (The doctors told me they “didn’t think she seemed restless,” though, when I brought it up). A few days in, she started acting confused, which really scared me, but my concerns were explained away as my mom being “sleepy.” One minute, a social worker came in asking about which rehabs I’d want her discharged to; and the next, a palliative care doctor came in asking if she had an advanced directive. There were a lot of mixed messages because they still didn’t know what was wrong with her yet. But my intuition said something was very wrong.

After a week undiagnosed in the hospital, she had a heart attack during dialysis, and they did CPR. I don’t think she wanted CPR, but they had kept telling us there was “no rush” in filling out the advanced directive, and at that point she was becoming confused anyway, so we couldn’t get through the whole form together. She had another heart attack in the ICU while they were getting her set up on the ventilator, and they did CPR again. When I arrived in her room, they still didn’t know what was wrong with her and were preparing more tests.

The results from a test the day before were finally available, and they saw she had a GI infection. Is it something that happened in the hospital? Was it from a bile duct surgery two weeks prior, that just went undetected? Had her upset stomach been due to chemo or a burgeoning GI infection? I’ll never know. The only thing that’s for sure is the chemo suppressed her immune system so she was not able to fight it off. The thing that was supposed to extend her life severely shortened it. (Sepsis and Surgery, Sepsis and Impaired Immune System)

She died on the ventilator the next day, and my world changed forever.

I want to spread awareness about sepsis, especially to oncologists: Anyone who is on chemo is at an increased risk of dying from sepsis. My mom was exactly where she was supposed to be (in the hospital) at the first sign of concern, but it still went undiagnosed until it was too late. I miss her tremendously.

Source: Nicole, Daughter

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