Tennis champion dies of sepsis, Novato widow wants to raise awareness

The death of a retired tennis champion from septic shock has launched his wife on a campaign to raise awareness of the illness.   

Ken Flach was a dominant doubles player for two decades, and his loss has been widely noted by the tennis world. It is felt even more acutely by his family and friends every day. 

"These are his Wimbledon trophies, and there's Davis Cup, and the torch he carried in Atlanta," said Christina Flach, showing KTVU several shelves of honors and mementos from Ken Flach's time on the professional tour.  

During his career, spanning the 1980's and 90's, Ken Flach won 36 doubles titles, including six Grand Slam championships.  

He always said his proudest moment was at the Olympics, with his longtime doubles partner, since their college days.  

"He and his partner, Bob Seguso, won the gold medal in 1988 in Seoul," said Christina Flach, opening a case to show the medal, "and it was the first year tennis came back into the Olympics."

A year ago, the Flachs were in New York to enjoy the U.S. Open, which Ken Flach won twice. 

But this year, she is watching the competition at home in Novato, Calif. with a heavy heart. 

"How did this big, healthy professional athlete not survive?" she asked aloud.

It is a question that has tortured her since March 12.  

That's the day her 54-year-old husband died of septic shock. 

"I had no idea what sepsis was, I had only heard the word," said Christina Flach. 

She now knows sepsis is the body's extreme immune response to an infection, in which it attacks its own organs. Spread through the bloodstream, sepsis is swift and unforgiving.

Ken Flach had been feeling the effects of an upper respiratory infection, and had been in contact with medical personnel at Kaiser Permanente, who treated him over the phone. 

Christina Flach said he was prescribed an inhaler and cough syrup, but one day later, he was worse, suffering chest pain and spitting up blood. She took him to the emergency room in San Rafael, where she says he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

No one mentioned sepsis, but within hours, Ken Flach was intubated, and machines were breathing for him.   

"I didn't understand that we'd never speak again, as soon as we kissed goodbye," recalled Christina Flach, "and we both said 'I love you' and I said I'd see him in awhile as soon as the procedure was done, and I really thought he was going to be OK."  

Instead Ken Flach was transferred the following day to UCSF, his organs failing. 

Had he lived, doctors said his limbs would have been amputated, from a loss of blood flow. 

Within a few days, Ken Flach was taken off life support, shattering the couple's blended family of nine children. 

"And I cry every day because I miss him so much, he was my everything," said Christina Flach sadly. 

She now wears both of their wedding rings, and pushes through her grief to volunteer with Sepsis Alliance, so that other families can be spared her experience.  She wants people to know sepsis can develop from any infection, even one as innocuous as a cut or a cough. 

But it is survivable if detected and treated early.  

A blood test will reveal sepsis, and symptoms include fever, pain, shortness of breath, confusion, and pale or discolored skin. 

"I wish Ken had been seen by a doctor, because if he had, he'd be here," said Christina Flach, "and if he'd been treated, had been give drugs sooner, been given antibiotics sooner, he'd be here."   

Christina Flach wants that for all patients, even though her husband was more prominent than many. 

"He never talked about tennis," she recalled," he was so humble and that's why people loved him so much."

In Flach's later years, he turned his athletic prowess to golf.  

"If you wanted to talk about his golf score, that's something he'd talk about," smiled Christina Flach, "but tennis? He was clearly proud, but it wasn't something he was still living in."

And as a devoted husband and father, Ken Flach took more pride in his family than anything he had accomplished on a tennis court.  

"I keep thinking the door is going to open and he's going to come in," said Christina Flach, her voice cracking, "and after six months I wonder, when will I know, he's not coming back?"

Sept. 13 is World Sepsis Awareness Day, and a billboard campaign is planned, with the message "Sepsis Kills." Some add will feature Ken Flach's name and face. 

As many as one million Americans are diagnosed with sepsis every year, and about one-third do not survive. Many who do, will live with life-changing disabilities.  

Sepsis is a major challenge in hospitals, where it is one of the leading causes of death, and many medical providers have launched sepsis reduction programs to improve detection and early treatment.