The death of American tennis standout Ken Flach about 18 months ago left his many friends and admirers stunned, saddened and dismayed. The former world No. 1 in doubles passed away suddenly at the age of 54, losing a brief battle with sepsis, a “potentially life threatening condition” brought about by the body’s response to an infection. Under normal circumstances, the body releases chemicals which combat an infection, but Sepsis occurs when the body responds abnormally to these chemicals, which can lead to the damage of multiple organ systems.
Ken did not realize what he was confronting soon enough to survive it. Neither he nor his wife Christina Flach had any idea what Sepsis was. Now she is a strong advocate for awareness of the disease. She feels strongly that the medical industry let her husband down flagrantly, and wants to prevent others from becoming victims of this extreme and fast moving illness that took Flach’s life so suddenly.
I met with Christina during the US Open, when she told me the story of her spouse’s passing. We followed up with a telephone interview this week. She spoke forthrightly about what happened, breaking into laughter, fighting back tears, maintaining her dignity all through our conversation.
Trying to put it all in perspective, Christina said, “It is not just Sepsis that I would like to address, but our medical system in this country. We listen to our doctors because we have respect for them, so we don’t question them. But I am trying to raise awareness so people can question their doctors. And if in their gut they feel something is not appropriate, they can look elsewhere.”
Ken was under the medical umbrella of Kaiser [Permanente], an insurance company that provides doctors to those using their services. He was not feeling well shortly before he died, and contacted Kaiser. He spoke with a doctor but was not seen.
As Christina points out, “You can’t be a doctor and not see the patient. You need to look them in the eye and see them, to feel them. This is what happened to Ken. That is why I am trying to raise awareness for a medical system that is fractured and obviously needs change. If my husband had been seen, we would not be having this conversation today.”
Ken played golf in March of 2018 and got bronchitis that turned into pneumonia. He and his wife were on the phone with Kaiser for 13 minutes. He felt like he had glass in his chest. He was carrying a fever and dealing with yellow mucous. As Christina recalls, a few hours later a doctor called and spoke with Ken for three minutes. The doctor did not want to see him, but prescribed cough medicine with codeine and an inhaler with a steroid. But they did not put him on an antibiotic.
Christina—the CEO of Pretty Girl Makeup and a celebrity makeup and hair artist— is convinced that she lost her husband because of the cough medicine with the codeine, and not being put on an antibiotic when he could have been saved. She says, “When one takes cough medicine with codeine, you think at the time it will be great and help with sleep. But it actually killed Ken because the drug slowed down his breathing to the point where the infection can grow. You are not breathing at a normal rate and the infection is festering, so in 12 hours, when Ken should have been significantly better, he was much worse, and spitting up blood.”
Flach, right, with Seguso after winning Wimbledon doubles invitational in 2008. (Getty Images)
As she recalls, “I took him to the emergency [center] and in two hours he was on life support. He was having a hard time breathing and spitting up blood. They did test him for sepsis but they waited three and a half hours to give him an antibiotic that he needed immediately because they were out of it. If they would have told me that, I would have found an ambulance or taken him to another hospital. He would be alive. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
His organs were shutting down. His condition was rapidly deteriorating. Christina took Ken to the world renowned UCSF in San Francisco to put him on an ECMO machine to pump blood into his system, but it was too late. His arms and legs started turning black. Christina called in a specialist to confront the discoloration but was told that if he survived, Ken would need to have his arms and legs amputated.
She said, ‘There is no way I am going to let my gold medal, Wimbledon-winning husband have his legs and arms amputated. He would never forgive me. That is not how he would want to live his life. I knew I was going to have to take him off life support because he wasn’t going to survive. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Goose [Robert Seguso] was with me and Ken was unconscious. All our kids were there. They turned off the machine and he passed in a minute or two.”
Christina was thrown into a world of hurt and shock. But she went to a Grieving Camp and started to heal. She was contacted by the Sepsis Alliance and decided to help them, allowing the organization to use Ken Flach’s likeness and image to raise awareness. “I said yes,” she recollects, “because it is important. You don’t just use your fame to benefit you. You have to help others. That is how Ken felt about life.”
Flach, right, and Seguso won four Slam doubles trophies together. (Getty Images)
The Flachs had made the first call to Kaiser on Wednesday and five days later he was gone. “It was that fast,” says Christina. “That is why I urge people if they have any of the symptoms of sepsis not to wait for tomorrow. Sepsis doesn’t give you a tomorrow. It needs to be addressed today. I am a very private person normally, but I know I can make a difference now. I couldn’t have done this if my husband was not as famous as Ken was. No one would listen to me.”
Christina came to the US Open to visit with old friends and raise awareness about Sepsis. Robert Seguso and his wife Carling Bassett joined her. Bassett was a US Open semifinalist in 1984 and a world Top-10 player. Seguso joined forces with Ken to capture back-to-back Wimbledon titles in 1987 and 1988, as well as winning the US Open in 1985. They also garnered a gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1988. Ken took another US Open in 1993 with Rick Leach. Moreover, Ken won the 1986 French Open and Wimbledon mixed doubles titles alongside countrywoman Kathy Jordan.
Ken and Seguso were more than doubles partners who scaled the heights in their profession; they were the best of friends. When Christina knew that her husband was seriously ill, she called Seguso from her home in California, and he flew immediately from Florida to lend his support.
Speaking of Seguso, Christina says, “Rob always says that I got the best version of Ken. You don’t become No. 1 in the world at anything by being light and breezy. Ken was very intense and aggressive in his way but when he retired and we met, he was a better version of himself. Rob always says I got the really good years with Ken and tells me that when he was married to Ken he was a handful.”
Ken and Seguso were not really married, of course. But they were such highly valued friends that they were almost on the same level as partners of a different kind. As Christina explains, “Rob Seguso would refer to Ken as his first wife. They traveled together from the time they were 17 years old and were close until Ken passed away at 54. It was a long term, intense relationship. They had their ups and downs like any marriage. Rob was his work husband. They loved each other. Rob is helping me now with managing my money. He is like my inherited husband and I am grateful to have him. We kind of grieve together. And Carling is like my sister. I am kind of an Auntie to their kids. Ken always said the greatest gift he gave me was the gift of ‘Goose.’”
Flach and Seguso scored gold medals after winning men's doubles at the 1988 summer Olympics. (Getty Images)
Ken found other avenues of success after retiring from tennis in the mid-nineties, most prominently coaching the Vanderbilt University Tennis Team and leading them to the NCAA Finals in 2003. He was interested at one time in the US Davis Cup captaincy. He played for his nation regularly between 1985 and 1991, winning 11 of 13 Davis Cup matches. But his priority was family. Ken was more than a stepfather to Christina’s five kids from a previous marriage; he was a second father. One of those children died tragically young, but Ken took on a critical role with the rest.
He left behind four children from his first marriage as well. Asked to define her late husband’s legacy, Christina answers, “Ken and Rob made doubles fun, interesting and exciting, and that obviously will be his legacy. But I also feel that bringing awareness to Sepsis and the medical industry and having me use his name this way would make Ken incredibly proud. He would be saying things like, ‘Sepsis, watch out! Kaiser, watch out! My wife is going to squash you.’ Ken would make jokes that I was Stalin’s great-great granddaughter and he is probably right about that. Three of my four grandparents are Russian. Ken introduced me to Rod Laver once and when I saw Rod again at Indian Wells some time later he remembered and said, ‘Oh, you are Stalin’s great-great granddaughter.’”
Christina would settle for a less lofty label than that. Just call her a woman with an overriding mission, and that is this: she will not let Ken’s death be lost in the shuffle of history. She is keeping him very much alive.
“I just can’t wallow in my grief, “ she says. “ I need to do something to help other people. I really want to make changes in the medical profession and with Kaiser in particular. I have met with Kaiser three times and they are actually doing facetiming now with their patients instead of just speaking to them on the phone. It makes me feel so good when I get calls or emails from people telling me they have heard of seen my interviews, and they took their wife or husband to the doctor and they were found to have Sepsis. They tell me that my husband saved their life. I am grateful and know that Ken would feel the same way.”