Frances Elizabeth Mostiller Gilbert loved to travel. She, her husband Allen Ray Gilbert (“Ray”) and their children, Kathleen and James, spent countless trips exploring the beaches of Florida. Frances was certainly in her element while near the shoreline. She was a science teacher and she brought that knowledge and thirst for learning to every family outing. Her character traits must have rubbed off on her two children, and she now has a microbiologist son and her daughter became a registered nurse. Given her strong ties to science, her daughter Kathleen states:
It has not gone without notice that my mother would, in fact, be fascinated with the details of her own death.
Frances was a very strong woman. She endured two major back surgeries in the past five years, while also dealing with the symptoms and treatment of Leukemia and attending to her 92-year-old sister. She also meticulously cared for Ray, to whom she was steadfast in her devotion. Ray has suffered two strokes as well as other health issues in the past decade. When he had a long ICU stay a little over a year and a half ago, Frances was there for every visit and refused to be anything but positive, even when the outlook was grave. She visited him daily while he was in a rehabilitation hospital for months and lovingly cared for him on his return home, in spite of her own cancer struggles and related oncology appointments.
Cancer: A Battle with Leukemia Fought and Conquered
Frances had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and was scheduled to begin treatment in the Spring of 2011. She started chemotherapy right after the family’s celebration of her 80th birthday, on March 4, 2011. Her husband of 60 years, Ray took great joy in all of the planning and effort going into her party. There was nothing he loved more than making his wife happy. All four of her beloved granddaughters were there. The family gave her a small diamond cross necklace to wear as a symbol of hope when embarking on the journey of chemotherapy. Kathleen wore an identical cross during the months to come. It was a symbolic gesture to show that the Gilbert family was in this fight together, much like it was with Kathleen’s own cancer battle years ago, when Frances supported her and her young children with love and prayers.
Although chemotherapy for anyone, let along an 80-year-old, is difficult at best, by far it was a battle that Frances had won. Although weakened from the fight, Ray and the family were optimistic. While still seeing her doctors every Friday morning, Frances was making plans for moving forward and enjoying the upcoming year. She had seen an orthopedic surgeon and planned to have knee surgery so that she could increase her mobility—enjoying her remission from cancer even more.
Listeria: A Battle Frances Could Not Win
On Saturday, September 3, 2011, the Gilbert family was together again. The four granddaughters with their three husbands arrived along with James and Kathleen and their spouses. Ray had been concerned with the details of this celebration for months—it was his and Frances’s 60th wedding anniversary.
All the plans were in place for a beautiful luncheon at the family’s favorite place. Fresh flowers, place cards and praline favors were matched by color—Frances’s favorite. Frances and Ray’s wedding photos were framed for each couple to have as a keepsake and James’s wife, Minette, took pictures during the party that she would later make into a book to give Ray and Frances as an anniversary gift. None of the family could have ever believed that, on this happy and joyful day, Frances would never live to see those pictures as they sat next to her bed in the intensive care unit, a little more than ten days later.
It was on September 15 that Kathleen was packing to make the trip that afternoon to Louisiana, prior to her mother’s Friday appointment with her oncologist. As she packed, Ray called to find out exactly when Kathleen would arrive. As they talked, it became clear that something was wrong—he was becoming increasingly concerned about Frances. He explained that she had become ill the day before with vomiting and diarrhea, and it had become worse through the night. But most shocking of all, Frances was unable to speak. She could not even hold the phone. Kathleen quickly called her brother, James. He rushed over to his parents’ home and called an ambulance immediately upon arriving. At first James thought his mom had suffered a stroke. She was in her bedroom chair slumped to the side, unable to move her limbs or her body.
When the paramedics arrived, they checked Frances immediately and found her severely dehydrated. She was transported to WK Pierremont Health Center, noting that she had an altered state of consciousness. Although Frances was answering their questions, she could only muster one word responses. James—trying to avoid what he knew would be a long and stressful night—suggested Ray remain at home. He agreed after James promised he would call him with updates when something was known about Frances’s condition.
Kathleen arrived in the emergency room while her mother was still waiting for a room. She recalls her shock upon entering:
I was stunned by her lack of facial expression. She looked nothing like herself. Her face appeared slack and the most prominent feature was the look in her eyes. She looked confused and scared. There was an awkward attempt at barely a smile when she recognized me and it was the last hint of recognition that I would ever see from her. She looked so scared and I have never seen my mother look scared of anything.
Frances and the family spent the next hours with a series of revolving doctors and nurses. Kathleen and James tried to remain calm, but the barrage of emotion made it difficult. An emergency room nurse said repeatedly, “She’s the sickest person we’ve got in here,” and a doctor said, “She’s the sickest person we’ve seen in some time.” Once Frances was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit, however, everyone took some small comfort in the prospect that the intravenous fluids and antibiotics she was receiving would result in a big improvement in the morning. The staff convinced Kathleen and James to go home and get some rest.
The next morning, however, brought no good news. The prognosis was dire enough that the infectious disease specialist called Kathleen while en route to the hospital stating, “She is the sickest person I have seen in a long time!” Kathleen was growing increasingly upset at just hearing those words repeated, yet again. It was later that day that Frances stopped communicating with even simple eye contact.
In shock and disbelief, all of the extended Gilbert family, including Frances’s devoted granddaughters and their husbands, camped out at the ICU and hung on every terrible word from the doctors, each one with their own horror story of Frances’s decline. Frances started making abrupt, jerking movements with her arms, straightening them out violently and then dropping them to the bed. These episodes continued at random. The family could only watch helplessly as their beloved Frances declined.
By the next day, her eyes were becoming crossed, also a neurological sign of the infection that was ravaging her brain by now. Ray was stunned to near silence as the sight of his wife of 60 years, but he knew she was in there. He sat in the chair beside her bed, whispering loving words to her while gently stroking her hand.
The focus now was on Frances’s escalating fever of 104°F. The staff managed to get it down under 102°F, but it would only start right back up again. This battle continued for days.
The family stayed in shifts. Kathleen was at her bedside for many of the most unbearable moments as Frances began seizing—just the first of many such episodes to come. She describes one:
If you haven’t seen a grand mal seizure, the worst and most significant of seizures, then you can barely imagine what it would be like to see your precious, 80-year-old mother who has been fairly motionless for hours begin to flail her arms and arch her back and violently jerk as her head rears back and all the while her eyes are wide open because they have been for days, she is clamping her teeth as she grimaces sucking air in and out as her mouth begins to foam.
All I could do as the nurses ran in was try to touch her jerking shoulder as I cried, “I’m here, mom” and the tears flooded my face and I could hear my own sobbing. When I thought it was finally over after minutes of this agony, I realized that she was still arched and still sucking in the air with her teeth clamped and it was an eternity before her breathing finally slowed and she relaxed back into the sheets.
After Sunday afternoon, Ray never returned to the hospital. He said his goodbyes to the woman he had loved nearly all his life, and had shared the last 60 years as husband and wife. It was simply too hard to see her.
The next days were a progressive blur of more morphine to reduce the body thrashing, followed by less morphine to keep her breathing from becoming too shallow. Every doctor seemed to have an idea of what Frances needed, whether it was a different antibiotic or simply stopping them altogether because it was pointless.
A feeding tube was started, but it caused unstoppable and constant diarrhea. Luckily, one of the doctors discontinued the feeding tube completely and after a few hours more, at least, that nightmare was over. Through all of this Frances’s eyes remained open—a terrified gaze fixed around the room. She was unable to blink, causing her eyes to dry out. Eventually they became so dry that her cornea began to tear away from her eye.
Frances was connected to a breathing mask, which eventually became sprinkled throughout with visible blood droplets being exhaled by each breath. Her mouth and throat started bleeding and weeping steadily, causing the bottom of her mask to fill with a thick, blood-tinged liquid. Her breathing had become almost systematic—labored, but at a predictable pace.
On the September 21, Dr. Padilla, the infectious disease specialist overseeing her care, came to the family with the news that they had been longing for—the cause of Frances’s infection was certain. She was infected with Listeria. The causal link between Frances Gilbert’s Listeria infection and the contaminated cantaloupe grown at the Jensen Farms facility is clear. In August and September 2011, Frances consumed Jensen Farms/Frontera cantaloupe purchased on numerous occasions at Kroger store #412, located at 4100 Barksdale Blvd, Bossier City, Louisiana.
At 2:25 AM, with her family steadfast at her bedside, Frances Gilbert quietly took her last breath.
“She is far more precious than jewels and her value is far above rubies or pearls.” Proverbs 31:10
Frances’s memory will be cherished by her loved ones: husband of 60 years, Allen Ray Gilbert; son, James Robert Gilbert and wife Minette; daughter, Kathleen Gilbert Buchanan and husband Buck; grandchildren, Marianne Buchanan Hawkins and husband Michael, Margaret Buchanan Barker and husband Brett, Mary Margaret Gilbert Edmonson and husband Andy, Meredith Kathleen Gilbert and sister, Pauline Mostiller.
Frances Gilbert from Marlerclark on Vimeo.