A Texas woman who nearly lost her life after giving birth was reunited at home this month with her now-4-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
Krystina Pacheco, 29, of Pleasanton, Texas, gave birth to her daughter Amelia on Oct. 24, 2022, in what she described as an uneventful C-section delivery.
Two days later, on the day she was discharged from the hospital, Pacheco said she started feeling feverish but assumed it was just part of her recovery post-C-section and was given ibuprofen by a nurse.
When she continued to feel unwell at home, Pacheco said she went to see a doctor, who sent her to a local emergency room.
From there, Pacheco was airlifted to a hospital in San Antonio, where doctors discovered her body was in septic shock.
"I just remember I couldn’t breathe anymore and I couldn’t see anymore and I just started slowly fading out," Pacheco told ABC News. "My husband, I could just hear him saying, 'Please come back to us, please, your babies need you. I need you. I need you to be here and help me with our babies,' and that's the last thing I remember."
Septic shock is the most dangerous stage of sepsis, which occurs when your body has an extreme response to infection. According to the National Institutes of Health, "without quick treatment, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and even death."
In septic shock, the body has dangerously low blood pressure. Risk factors include recent infection or surgical procedure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sepsis is the second leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the United States, behind only cardiovascular conditions.
In Pacheco's case, the condition began to affect her heart, lungs and kidneys, according to her husband, Jacob Pacheco.
Jacob Pacheco said his wife was simultaneously put on dialysis to help her kidneys and on an ECMO machine, a lifesaving device that removes carbon dioxide from the blood and sends back blood with oxygen to the body, allowing the heart and lungs time to rest and heal.
"They didn't want to tell us how close she was [to death] but you could see it in their faces every time I asked," Jacob Pacheco said, adding that doctors at the time gave his wife a 20% survival rate. "It was scary."
Jacob Pacheco, a coach and teacher, who met Krystina because they both work in the special education field, said he relied on family and friends for support as he stayed by his wife's bedside while also needing to care for their newborn daughter and young son.
"We would bring them to the hospital and our families would meet there and we would take care of them in the lobby," he said of their children, Amelia and Owen. "It was, you know ... living just day by day, just trying to take care of Krystina."
For the two weeks Krystina Pacheco remained in the intensive care unit and on dialysis and the ECMO machine, Jacob Pacheco said he and his mother-in-law and father-in-law took turns sitting by her bedside.
In mid-November, Krystina Pacheco began to turn a corner and improved enough that doctors were able to take out her breathing tube so she could speak.
"The first thing she said to me was, 'What happened to me? Did I almost die?,'" Jacob Pacheco recalled. " And we had a moment of tears -- tears of sadness, tears of joy, just a bunch of emotions coming over us."
Though Krystina Pacheco was now awake, she still had to face what she now describes as the "hardest thing" she's been through.
Just before Thanksgiving, she said doctors told her they would need to amputate both of her feet and hands because of the damage they had sustained while she was in intensive care.
One of the risk factors of an ECMO machine is poor blood flow to the limbs, which can result in the need for amputation, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which was not involved in Krystina Pacheco's medical care.
"My hands and feet were black. They looked like a person who had gotten frostbite," she said, adding that her medical team "tried to do everything they could" to avoid having to amputate.
"I was just breaking down and being absolutely crushed that that's where we were at, at that point," Krystina Pacheco said of learning amputations were necessary. "And crying with my family, crying with Jacob, and just being sad that my life would no longer be the same."
In addition to undergoing an initial surgery to amputate both arms below the elbows followed by a second surgery days later to amputate both legs below the knees, Krystina Pacheco said she underwent nearly one dozen skin grafts over the next several weeks because the skin around her amputations was so damaged.
"Every day I woke up and thought about my babies and every time I went into a surgery, my thought was, I have to get home to be with my babies, so if that means going through one more surgery, then ultimately I have to go through another surgery," she said. "They were my number one motivation, hands down."
In late January, three months after she was admitted, Krystina Pacheco was discharged from the hospital and moved to TIRR Memorial Hermann, a rehabilitation center in Houston.
There, Krystina Pacheco, who previously taught group fitness classes outside of her full-time job, spent several weeks healing her amputation wounds and learning to live as a double amputee, while also rebuilding her strength after a three-month hospital stay.
"Any task, any exercise, I tried it and I gave it my 100%," she said, adding that she started applying the motivation she had taught in group fitness to herself. "I would self-talk to myself, like, 'Come on. You've got this. Just get this,' so I would push a little. I even surprised myself some of the time."
Dr. Vinay Vanodia, medical director of the amputee and limb loss rehabilitation program at TIRR Memorial Herman, said Krystina Pacheco's self-motivation helped her progress really quickly in rehab.
"When she first came in, I had received a message about this young patient who came in with these unfortunate amputations after pregnancy and her baby was at home while she was here," Vanodia told ABC News. "But when we went to see her, she was such a bright light and it just changed the whole mood."
He continued, "Any challenge we put in front of her, she was able to accomplish. She just gave 100% and was able to make a lot of progress while she was with us."
On Feb. 11 -- more than 100 days after she was hospitalized and away from her newborn daughter and son -- Krystina Pacheco was able to return home.
"I cried," she said of the moment she arrived home. "I hugged [Jacob] really right. He knew I was overcome with emotions."
Krystina Pacheco said she has no lingering medical complications from her septic shock scare beyond her amputations. She is currently doing workouts at home to rebuild her strength and will start outpatient rehabilitation soon so she can get stronger and be self-sufficient in tasks like transferring herself from her bed to a chair and the shower.
The Pachecos said they have been overwhelmed with the help they've received from friends, family and their community over the past several months, from helping to take care of their children to raising money to help them cover medical costs and costs associated with making their home wheelchair-friendly.
Jacob Pacheco said that new challenges have arisen as his wife has settled in at home, but they are moving forward, looking at each new challenge as a new "chapter" in their story.
"It's not easy, and it's not going to be easy," he said. "We were definitely crying yesterday and ... it's okay to feel those things. It's not easy, but if we’re sticking together, it makes it that much better."
Krystina Pacheco said she plans to return to work as a licensed specialist in school psychology, and wants to share her story to inspire other people and raise awareness of limb differences. She will soon be able to use state-of-the-art prosthetics for both her hands and feet, according to Vanodia.
When it comes to her kids, she described them as "resilient" and said her 2-year-old son Owen is always by her side and willing to help his mom with everyday tasks like pushing up her sleeves and opening her makeup.
Her 4-month-old daughter Amelia is now catching up on the bonding time she missed with her mom in the very first months of her life.
"That's one of the things that does break my heart a little bit still and that I'm working through is that mommy guilt of not being able to be with my baby every day for her first three months of her life," Krystina Pacheco said. "But you know, I'm home now and we're making those adaptations as we go and we're adjusting and being a little family again."
Editor's note: This was originally published on Feb. 23, 2023.