Dancing with Death: My Sepsis Story, Part 1

“Go to the Emergency Room in San Jose immediately,” my doctor texted me that morning, after seeing my most recent blood and urine test results in his inbox. “Can I go tomorrow?” I asked since I already had a flight booked for something completely unrelated. “No, do not wait. Every minute matters,” came the reply. That text signaled my “oh $hit” moment. This was serious. Therefore, my husband and I made the painful 5-hour trek to the ER in San Jose that morning.

Months after recovering from sepsis, I am still processing my dance with death – as I call it. If you are not familiar with this medical condition, sepsis is basically the point when an infection is raging within you so forcefully that your organs are at risk of shutting down.  As many as one-third of people with sepsis die. Not exactly a happy stat.

The entire episode for me was – and still is – surreal. How does one go from being completely fit (eating healthy, juicing daily, avoiding “bad for you” foods, not smoking, barely drinking alcohol, exercising consistently, maintaining a healthy weight, having no family history of serious ailments, being of sound mind, meditating, strong social ties, zero histories of mental illness or health problems, blah, blah, blah.) to nearly dead. Like a light switch. 

As of this writing, 4 months later, we do not know exactly what caused the sepsis.  My doctors in San Jose (I live in Costa Rica) scratched their heads. It is either an odd leaky gut issue, a perforation, or sudden extreme diverticulitis.  Long Covid? By the time I reached the ER on 28 Feb (I was in a closer hospital ER 3 days earlier and their tests failed to reveal the massive abscess growing within my gut – creating a very unbecoming pregnant look for me), I was slightly incoherent and, quite frankly, scared.  “Badass” as I would like to think I am, a dance with death reduced me to a tiny figure howling in pain, attempting to grasp my new reality.

Not my best look.

The hospital staff quickly began pumping painkillers, antibiotics and whatever other lifesaving liquids necessary into my already tired, collapsing veins from the previous ER visit.  Although the CT scan from 3 days earlier did not indicate that massive abscess, the new sonogram did.  It was explained to me that my body created it to save my life. And if I was not so young (relatively speaking, obviously) and fit, I would most likely be dead already. My body created this capsule to collect all the bacteria that were leaking from my intestines.  I was rushed to surgery to insert a drainage tube and I spent a week watching disgusting, bloody pus drain from my gut into a little apricot-shaped container during my week’s stay at one of Costa Rica’s reputable JCI-certified medical facilities.

The Apricot

Not having eaten in 10 days, kilos we slipping off my already slim frame.  I remember wondering what it would be like to eat again.  I also remember the overwhelming feeling of loneliness in a foreign place.  Thankfully, a day bed was set up in the room for my husband, so I was not alone.  But I was hours away from friends in my hometown who might have visited and infinitely far away from family and friends in my homeland.  Coupled with Spanish not being my first language, it exacerbated the feeling of being tiny and helpless in that gigantic hospital bed in a cold room (I am always cold).  Several friends sent flowers to brighten my day. I did not have the heart to tell them that the hospitals in Costa Rica will not allow flowers in their rooms.  So, they sit in the hospital lobby waiting for someone to take them. Fortunately, my husband was notified with each delivery and took photos so I could at least see them in their 2-dimensional, non-sensory version.

My first meal in 10 days. It was amazing.

When they tell you arthroscopic surgery is non-evasive, don’t believe them.  In order to locate the abscess, they must make several small incisions to guide the scope and they need to move around the intestines.  This delicate organ does not return to the way it was perfectly tucked into place previously. It leaves you lumpy – with all kinds of twinges of pain, making you question if it is a normal part of the healing or if the infection has returned.

As I lay there shivering, an occasional tear would trickle down my cheek. I thought about the upcoming plans (painstakingly enormous ones) that were destined to be canceled.  My husband and I had our Costa Rican (second) wedding planned on the beach in a couple of weeks and then an extended honeymoon to Turkey and Europe for 3.5 months.  My surgeon at our follow-up appointment a week after the hospital discharge stated, “I am okay with you flying, but my only concern is if the infection returns.”  I was cleared for the trip with a round of emergency antibiotics and a list of hospitals.

Perhaps, in hindsight, it was not the best decision to leave for so long not knowing the cause. But it was my decision, I own it.  Travel has long been my passion. I was not going to quit living after surviving a dance with death and multiple cancellations the previous 3 years.   In this case, being careful with diet and not over-extending myself was not enough.  The infection returned. I wasn’t sure, but the new anger in my intestines suggested things were not right.  This time I had the opportunity to visit the ER in Malta.  The blood test revealed high markers for infection and inflammation again.  Thankfully, the CT scan indicated the abscess had not yet reformed.  The 5 days of a liquid diet and a round of antibiotics did their job and helped me through the remainder of my time in Malta.

The infection is brewing again just a little over a week before we arrive home.  This time, with ongoing slight intestinal pain. I never thought it would be painful to eat, but it is.  As I write this blog, I am on a transatlantic crossing on my way back to the Americas. I am on ANOTHER round of antibiotics from my doctor in Malta and things are obviously not right.  The ship has a medical facility on board, but it is not as extensive as I would need if I went into sepsis again.  And the irony is, you cannot be life-flighted out of the middle of the Atlantic (although we were diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a medical emergency – thus delaying our arrival to NYC significantly).

And so, I turn to the healing vibrations of the universe.  The kindness of so many friends and family who kept me in their thoughts, their prayers, or in whatever way they felt appropriate to send healing vibes surround me once again. It is what got me through that initial dance with death.  I am almost home, with a colonoscopy appointment looming.  The answers and possible surgery will come.  I remain hopeful.

I went to a lecture on board the ship from an RAF fighter pilot, John Peters, who was shot down in Kuwait and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime for 75 days before the war ended.  His emotional speech, sprinkled with humor, reminded me to find strength while in a scary place. And to find ways to laugh.

12 thoughts on “Dancing with Death: My Sepsis Story, Part 1”

  1. where are you now Fran? I hope home and safe and feeling all better. I pray for you frequently. Please keep me posted. Love You.

  2. Veronica Morra

    O. M. G. I love Costa Rica. I have been there three times. The first time, c 2012, on a Caravan Tour, 48 hrs . prior to my return to MA, I was on a guided nature walk with my whole group on the coast in Guanacaste. We were staying at the Marriott Guanacaste. The walk
    was at 8:00 a.m. on the edge of the forest, right next to the beach. I was taking a photo of Hollering Monkeys on a tree. I took a step back with my right foot and my left foot slipped went up in the air and I came crushing down onto the floor, with my left leg extended and my foot dangling pointing to the left. I had heard the crackling noise of the ankle bone breaking from the intensity of the slip. It was not a matter of life and death; but I did not have a husband with me. I had a former coworker and friend, her sister and brother-in-law. Both Caravan, my tour guide, my tour mates, the American hospitaI I was airlifted to, and the Chilean orthopedic surgeon who did emergency surgery were amazing.
    I am a retired nurse and cannot imagine a dance with death.
    I hope the universe will continue to protect you and provide you with a complete and speedy recovery .
    I share your passion for travel, I am a 75-years-old solo nomad in Vietnam. Heading to Europe at the end of the year.
    Best wishes, Veronica

    PS: I received the largest bouquet of flowers I have ever seen from my travel mates and a stuffed monkey to remind me of the cause of the accident. An off-duty tour guide was sent by Caravan to sit with me during the whole time I was in the hospital , and since I was leaving two days later, I gave her the flowers to take home. Apparently the rules have changed!

    1. Hola Veronica! Thanks so much for taking the time to reach out to me and share your story. Costa Rica is a magical place, but argh, what a way to end that particular trip. I am glad everything turned out okay. I adore your passion for travel and hope after my dance it done, I will be back on the road again. Enjoy Vietnam (I love it there) and maybe I will see you in Europe sometime. Keep being incredible you and safe travels. Thank you again for keeping me in your thoughts.

  3. Oh Kat!! This time you will dance around death, not with it. You’re one strong and determined woman and I’m keeping you in my thoughts constantly, visualizing a healthy and energized you, and praying for a complete healing. Will you first go home and then to San Jose? Or straight to San Jose?

    1. Thanks for your positive vibes, chica. It is what helping me get through my Dance with Death, Part 2. Thankfully after over 2 weeks, I am home from San Jose, healing. Love you!

  4. Keeping you and Your family in our daily prayers for strength and healing and are with you in spirit During this difficult journey🙏❤️🙏 Be well😘

  5. Kristian Johnson

    Wow. Such a painful (literally) journey you are going through. So very sorry. In a strange coincidence, a good friend (younger than you and I) was admitted to the hospital in Tampa, Florida over the weekend with a diagnosis of colitis and sepsis! She was also in good health with no prior history. Eerily similar.

    We are going to Valencia, Spain for 3 months at the end of the year and your experience has made me aware of what health issues can occur. I’ve already identified a local internist, dentist, pharmacy and hospital that are covered under our insurance – just in case.

    Take care. I’ll be thinking of you and following your story. Stay strong and fight the good fight friend!

    Kristian Johnson

    1. Kristian, thanks for taking the time to comment. I was dancing with death, part 2 when you commented and I am finally home at my computer. That is really strange about your friend’s diagnosis. I hope she is doing well now and past the scary part. Have a wonderful trip to Valencia ( I have a good friend who lives there – it looks spectacular). And yes, always good to be aware of possible health issues – at least having insurance lined up. Cheers to you!

  6. You are an amazing woman! Such a positive attitude got you through this and you have a lot of living to do. We met on that amazing China trip and have followed along on your journeys. We will meet again, my friend.

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