Katie McQuestion, a 26-year-old radiology technician from Kenosha, Wisconsin, got a flu shot to comply with hospital policy and had no underlying medical conditions, but she caught the flu and developed a serious complication from it: sepsis. She died on Jan. 2.
"She was the picture of health," her mother told ABC News, adding that McQuestion was married in September. "No 29-year-old should have to bury his wife."
McQuestion complained she didn't feel well on a mother-daughter trip to a dress shop on Dec. 29, said her mother, who asked not to be named. The following day, McQuestion was sent home sick from work. Her mother said she picked up a prescription for her on New Year's Eve.
Then, on New Year's day, McQuestion called her mother and said, "Mom, I've never been this sick," her mother recalled. McQuestion's parents and husband met her in the emergency room, and doctors told them that she had a high heart rate, low blood pressure and a low temperature. They gave her anti-nausea medication and something to help her sleep, her mother said.
About 12 hours later, the hospital called McQuestion's parents and told them she had taken a turn for the worse.
"They told us sepsis had set in, and it was too late," her mother said, adding that McQuestion had suffered a heart attack. "By that time, all her organs had begun to fail. There was nothing they could do."
Her family was in shock, her mother said.
"To go from not feeling good to dying is just -- there's no words," her mother said. "It just breaks my heart. She was such a great kid."
It's hard to predict who will get sepsis from the flu, but underlying conditions, such as asthma or lung disease could contribute to it, said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He did not treat McQuestion, but he said sepsis can happen if the flu progresses to pneumonia, which is bacterial.
"Usually pneumonia infection is confined to the lungs, but on occasion, it can be so bad that the bacteria leave the lungs and get into the blood stream," Schaffner said.
Sepsis is a life-threatening reaction to an infection due to chemicals in the bloodstream that trigger inflammatory responses in the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Pneumonia and flu can often seem to blend together, but Schaffner said that if you have shortness of breath, are coughing up yellow or green mucus, or mucus tinged with blood, it could be pneumonia. He recommended going to the doctor for an antiviral medication as soon as you realize you have the flu in the hopes of preventing a more severe illness and flu complications. He also advised staying hydrated and sitting up in bed to take deep breaths whenever possible.
McQuestion's family said they hope sharing her story will help prevent other deaths from flu-related sepsis.
"If this can help just one family avoid this, then it's not in vain," McQuestion's mother said. "She loved her job. She was so happy. It's just heartbreaking to know what could have been for her."