Updated to include comments from Dr. McLaren.
On Oct. 13, Christina Soto celebrated the one-year anniversary of the day she died—twice.
Soto, 46, began working for San Benito County as a social worker in 2015, and took over managing the local homeless shelter, known as the HOME Resource Center, in December 2017. On Oct. 12, 2018, she was not feeling well. She thought she might have a cold or the flu, but it turned out that a sore on her side had turned septic.
As bad as she felt, she drove her father to a doctor’s appointment in Gilroy, and then to lunch. Her mother and others told her she didn’t look well, but she pushed her way through most of the day because she wanted to watch her nephew, Chris Soto, play a Baler football game that night. Eventually, she realized she was too sick to go and texted her brother to let him know she couldn’t make it to the game. Her brother was concerned because she had missed the previous game as well.
“I remember waking up at six in the afternoon and texting him, asking how Chris was doing,” Soto said. “I don’t remember anything until I woke up Tuesday at about 3:30 [in the afternoon at the hospital].”
In a strictly medical sense, Soto never actually died because her heart never stopped beating. She did stop breathing a couple times and the medical team had to assist with her breathing, which Dr. Michael McLaren agreed, from her point of view, she might look at it as having died.
“She would have eminently died if our team had not intervened,” McLaren said. “While she didn’t die, she was extremely close. She had severe acid built-up in her blood and at the same time, she was fighting off a severe bacterial infection in her blood. We had to resuscitate her.”
Dr. Kyle Hsu described himself as a small cog in the wheel of the team who saved Soto. He told BenitoLink that Soto was suffering from Necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria.
Soto said co-workers at the shelter called her brother-in-law, Christopher Benavidez, when she didn’t show up for work. He and Soto’s sister, Marta Benavidez, went to check on her at her apartment. They saw Soto’s car parked outside and called her cellphone; they could hear it ringing from inside, but she wasn’t answering. They didn’t have a key to the apartment, so Benavidez called 911 for a welfare check.
Sgt. Bo Leland with the Hollister Police Department arrived after other officers had answered the call. He had to leave for a short time to respond to an auto accident, but came back to find everyone still outside the apartment. Soto said there was some issue about what to do because 48 hours had not passed since anyone had spoken to her, so she wasn’t technically missing.
“They didn’t know if I just didn’t want to talk to them,” Soto said.
“Officer Leland knew my brother-in-law and [Benavidez] told him, ‘This is not like her. If she wanted us to leave her alone she would have told us.’ That’s when Officer Leland called the fire department because I live upstairs and they were trying to figure out how to get into my apartment.”
Leland told BenitoLink that as they were waiting for the fire department to come, he and Benavidez searched around the neighborhood for a ladder. When the fire trucks arrived, it was decided that because they did not know what to expect inside the apartment that Leland should go in first.
“So the guy who’s afraid of heights went up first,” Leland joked. “I looked in the window and saw her arm [she was unconscious on the kitchen floor], and told them they needed to get in there right away.”
Paramedics arrived and transported Soto to Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital.
“My breathing stopped twice,” she said. “They let my mom know they didn’t think I was going to make it.”
She said the doctors only gave her a 10% chance of surviving. She was ventilated for three days as doctors tried to determine when to do something about the infection, she said.
“Dr. McLaren saved my life,” she said. “Then Dr. Hsu came in and cleaned my abscess.”
She said even though she was unconscious for several days, she remembers hearing voices, but couldn’t respond or move. Not until six months later when she finally met Dr. McLaren did she realize that one of those voices was his.
“I could hear people talking to me,” Soto said. “I heard my sister. I heard my mom, the doctors and the nurses. Some I knew, others I didn’t. I remember them saying ‘she’s been unconscious a very long time,’ and they were starting to worry.”
Soto said that because she was unconscious for three days, the doctors weren’t sure whether or not she had had a stroke.
“When I woke up the first person I saw was my mom,” she said. “My dad was also in the hospital, so she was going back and forth between us. She was really worried.”
Soto couldn’t speak for six days afterward because she had been intubated. After three days, she met Dr. Hsu, who told her what had happened and explained just how sick she really was.
“It was a team effort of coordination from the ER staff who provided resuscitation, to the hospital staff to out-patient where we provide the patient support system to allow them to get back their lives. I’m humbled how appreciative she is about our efforts in the hospital,” Hsu said. “She told me after reviewing her records how far she has come over the last year and how easily it could have gone the other way. What she encountered not many people make it through.”
He pointed out that the nursing staff was extremely important to Soto’s recovery.
“What people underestimate is the nursing staff in the ICU,” he said. “They are critical to treating these types of patients. She was very sick and had the police officer not found her and had Dr. McLaren not gotten her heart started she would have died.”
Soto recalled three nurses who attended to her by first name: Diane, Vicky and Cindy.
“They talked to me when I was unconscious,” she said. “They bathed me and took care of me. They gave me the best care. When I met them, I told them I remembered their voices.”
Frankie Gallagher, spokesperson for Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital, said it hospital policy not to give out employees’ last names.
One year later, Soto celebrated with Dr. Hsu and Dr. McLaren, who she thinks of as part of a team of angels who saved her life. She showed up at the hospital with hugs and pastries from Lighthouse 55 Bakery.
McLaren said he and his staff loved the pastries and Soto’s gratitude, which he said doesn’t happen very often.
“We really don’t see a lot of people come back and it was a pleasant surprise and being able to see her doing so well,” he said. “It touches our hearts to see somebody come in being grateful for the care.”
She also visited the Hollister Police Department to meet Leland. Leland not only received his pastries with a broad grin and hug, but also his favorite beverage: an iced coffee from Starbucks.
In their first meeting since he discovered her, Soto told Leland what happened after he called the paramedics. Leland thanked her, but wanted her to understand it was a team effort that saved her life.
“I appreciate what you’re saying, but I was really just doing my job,” Leland told her. “It was the entire team of police, paramedics, firefighters and doctors that helped you. Believe me, this is happening all over the country every day, where first responders do their jobs and help people. But it’s not every day we get a thank you like this.”