For most people, getting the flu means a few days of sickness and then a return to regular life. But for Kristin Fox, a 42-year-old mother and high-school principal in Ohio, the virus led to the loss of her arms and legs — and the start of a long, challenging journey to a new normal.
Fox’s ordeal began in March 2020, just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world.
She came down with a sore throat on Friday, and by Sunday she felt considerably worse. At urgent care that night, she tested positive for the flu.
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The physician’s assistant gave her Tamiflu and sent her home. The next day, Fox couldn’t get off the couch.
“I felt like I was dying,” she told Fox News Digital during a phone interview.
A nurse friend came over to take Fox’s blood pressure and oxygen levels, both of which were dangerously low.
Fox’s friend drove her to a small nearby hospital.
“Within 30 minutes, I was on a ventilator, and they said I probably wouldn’t make it,” Fox said.
She had developed bacterial pneumonia, which was leading to organ failure. Fox’s kidneys were shutting down and one of her lungs had collapsed.
What the medical team apparently didn’t realize, Fox said, was that she was already in septic shock, which is a life-threatening infection that causes organ failure and plummeting blood pressure.
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By Tuesday night, the hospital brought in a priest, expecting that Fox wouldn’t make it through the night — “but by the grace of God, I did,” she said.
By Thursday, doctors realized Fox was septic, she said. She was put into a medically induced coma and given vasopressor drugs in an attempt to save her vital organs.
“The doctors told my family they should prepare for the loss of some fingers or toes, because they were pulling so much from my extremities to try to keep my organs alive,” Fox said.
A couple of days later, the world shut down due to the pandemic — but because Fox was deemed the most critical patient in the hospital, they allowed her parents and husband to stay with her.
“It was touch and go for the next week,” Fox said.
Each year, at least 1.7 million adults in the U.S. develop sepsis, and nearly 270,000 die from the infection.
On March 26, the doctors told Fox’s husband and parents that they would have to amputate her legs the following day.
Fox’s mother begged the doctors to wait a few more days to see if she got better — but they said if they held off any longer, the infection would continue to rise above Fox’s knees, making her quality of life substantially worse, Fox related.
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The next day, Fox’s legs were amputated below her knees.
In the days after that first surgery, Fox’s arms got excessively worse, she said — “but they waited and didn’t take my arms until April 6, almost two weeks later.”
Fox considers it “lucky” that her arms were amputated just below the elbow, so she still has that range of motion — although it’s still very short compared to amputees who only lose their hands.
Within 72 hours, Fox was able to breathe without a ventilator and was transferred out of the ICU and into a “step-up room.”
After the surgeries, Fox was slowly brought out of her coma. “I was so confused,” she said. “I was still on a ventilator. I had no idea what was going on in the world (with COVID).”
Even so, within 72 hours, Fox was able to breathe without a ventilator and was transferred out of the ICU and into a “step-up room.”
A few weeks later, on May 17, she left the hospital.
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“They literally wrapped me like a mummy because I didn’t want my kids to see — I hadn’t told them yet about losing my arms and legs,” she recalled.
Eventually, Fox told her son and daughter — who were 9 and 6 at the time — what had happened.
“Between that and COVID, it was so much for little kids to wrap their minds around.”
The next stop was the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute to start physical therapy.
“I knew it was the best place to go,” Fox said. “I had to go somewhere that was going to really kick my butt in therapy.”
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In Pittsburgh, Fox completed six weeks of intense physical therapy, three hours per day.
Along the way, there were some setbacks — back at home, her lung collapsed again, and doctors had to put in a chest tube. Then she returned to Pittsburgh for six more weeks of therapy.
In October 2020, seven months after her ordeal began, Fox received prosthetics for her arms and legs, marking the beginning of a brand new journey.
“It was a huge learning curve,” she told Fox News Digital. “It was like trial and error of what worked and what didn’t.”
Last fall, Fox connected with an organization called 50 Legs in Orlando, Florida, which selects amputees who will receive custom prosthetics tailored to each patient’s body. After applying, she was selected and made the trip to get fitted for new, custom-made prosthetics — for free.
“It has been life-changing, because they are truly built for me and not just a size that everybody wears,” she said. “Anytime I need something, they ship it to me, or they put me on a plane to come down for a quick fix.”
She added, “They’re just the most incredible people I have ever encountered.”
These days, Fox uses only the prosthetic legs.
“I don’t use the arms at all,” she said. “I’ve learned to live without them — it’s easier. I even drive without them.”
Embracing a ‘new normal’
As a quadruple amputee, Fox faces new challenges in navigating the world, everything from working out to going to football games.
“There are just different things I never thought about before, in terms of accessibility and compliance,” she said. “The people who make the legislation don’t sit in the seat very often.”
After a year away from work, Fox was ready to return to her job as assistant principal at Campbell High School.
“I mentally had to go back to work,” she said. “I’m a very ‘go, go, go’ type of person. And if I went out on disability, I was not going to have a good quality of life.”
Fox said her children and her students at school also motivated her to keep moving forward.
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“I had a lot of young eyes watching me, and I knew there were so many kids who would learn so much from my reaction to this,” she said.
“It’s taught them about respecting differences and treating everyone fairly, regardless of their ability,” Fox noted. “And it’s taught them how they should overcome their own barriers and tough moments.”
One of Fox’s favorite mantras, she said, is “I’ve never had a tough day — I have tough moments.”
She noted, “As an educator, I didn’t want my students to think I took the easy way out.”
“Sometimes I catch myself complaining, but then I remind myself that my kids could have been mourning my death.”
Back at work, Fox said her school has “moved mountains” to make the transition as easy as possible for her.
Fox’s co-principal, Brad Yeager, shared with Fox News Digital how impressed he’s been by her triumph over adversity.
“No matter what obstacles she has faced, she has always stayed the course as not only an educational leader, but as a mother,” he said.
“She has taken this challenge head-on and has never let it come between her and her students,” Yeager went on. “She exemplifies perseverance … Our students look up to her and realize that no matter how tough their situation is, that is not an excuse to not give it their all each and every day.”
Beacons of support
Fox’s lifelong best friend, Lisa Saxon, and her sister, Lauren Baco, are among Fox’s biggest champions.
“Not many people can say their best friend is a real-life hero, but I can — and Kristin continues to defy the odds every day,” Saxon told Fox News Digital.
“Coming out of this as a quadruple amputee was life-changing, but it has only made her and everyone around her stronger.”
Baco cited a quote that reflects what her sister has gone through: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is all you have left.”
Baco added, “Kristin has shown every day how strong and resilient she is, taking on the day as if she has no limits or barriers.”
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The Youngstown community has rallied around Fox, organizing multiple fundraisers to help with her very steep medical expenses. Although insurance has covered some of her care, the out-of-pocket costs have been high — and there have also been expensive renovations to make the family’s home more accessible.
“Youngstown is not rich, but when something like this happens to somebody, they find ways to help,” she said. “That’s part of small-town pride.”
“People send me stuff and stop me in the store and say, ‘I pray for you all the time,’” she added. “Those are the people who got us through.”
Overall, Fox said her ordeal has wholly shifted her perspective.
“Sometimes I catch myself complaining, but then I remind myself that my kids could have been mourning my death,” she said.
“They’re 12 and 10 now, and I can’t imagine them living without me.”
What to know about sepsis risk
Each year, at least 1.7 million adults in the U.S. develop sepsis, and nearly 270,000 die from the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor, called the flu “a great enabler” of more severe illness.
“A bacterial secondary infection is very common, upwards of 20% to 30%,” he told Fox News Digital. “This can be anything from a sinus infection to bronchitis, meningitis or pneumonia.”
The flu can cause an inflammatory response called a cytokine storm, the doctor noted, which interferes with the body’s ability to fight off a subsequent bacterial infection.
“If bacterial pneumonia goes undiagnosed for awhile, sepsis can occur, as the bacteria spreads to the bloodstream,” Siegel warned.
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“If blood pressure drops too low, blood flow to the extremities drops off and tissue can die, leading to the need for amputation.”
Although the secondary bacterial infection is common, it is “very uncommon” for it to lead to sepsis, Siegel said.
Warning signs of sepsis include high fever, fatigue, dizziness and weakness.
To help prevent limb loss, Siegel said it’s important to get the patient to the hospital quickly and to start broad-spectrum antibiotics.
“When the source of the infection is confirmed, use vasopressors to clamp down on arteries to preserve blood flow to vital organs and increase blood pressure,” he recommended.
Doctors should also monitor the extremities and levels of serum lactate, which measures the amount of lactic acid in the blood.
These levels can go up if the body’s tissues are not getting enough oxygen, Siegel said.
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Fox said she hopes her story can help people — not only patients, but also the medical community — to be more aware of the signs of sepsis.
“I can’t go back and change [things],” she said. “I can only hope to be an advocate for the future.”
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