Jeanette LeBlanc loved to go crabbing with friends and family when she visited Louisiana, but the 55-year-old from Texas had no idea that a fun-filled boat trip in September would be her last.
LeBlanc, her wife Vicki Bergquist and three others set off on the crabbing trip on Lake Pontchartrain on Sept. 23. On the way back, they picked up a sack of oysters from a market. Just two days later, LeBlanc was in the hospital after contracting a flesh-eating bacteria that led to her death less than a month later on Oct. 15.
“I’m a very optimistic person, so I kept thinking that she was gonna make it. She was such a fighter through the whole entire process,” Vicki, 60, tells PEOPLE of LeBlanc. “Losing her was the hardest part. We spent every day together. We had such a good life together. She knew how much I loved her.”
The couple, who live in Quinlan, Texas, were in Louisiana caring for LeBlanc’s ailing father when they decided to meet up with family members for the crabbing excursion. The group spent the day laughing and talking as they caught crabs on the boat. LeBlanc and two others then bought oysters at a market in Westwego and went back home where everyone joined to eat. LeBlanc was tasked with shucking the oysters and her stepdaughter, Jennifer Bergquist, says LeBlanc suffered a small scrape during the process.
“She ate more than everybody,” Jennifer tells PEOPLE. “She ate like a dozen more than everybody and nobody else got sick.”
Two days later, Vicki says she found her wife struggling to breathe.
“She was really in bad shape,” Vicki, a nurse, tells PEOPLE. “She was having extreme respiratory distress and her lower legs had broken out in a rash.”
Vicki took LeBlanc to a Baton Rouge hospital where doctors initially thought she was simply having an allergic reaction. Soon, medical staff and family members discovered that LeBlanc was infected with vibrio, a bacterial infection that people can contract after consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the CDC, vibrio bacteria finds its way into oysters through coastal waters where oysters live and feed. Doctors told the family that they believe LeBlanc ate oysters that carried the harmful bacteria.
“We didn’t really know anything about [vibrio] so we looked it up and we were still on the optimistic side because we didn’t know,” Jennifer says. “It progressively got worse. They told us that her legs were getting worse. It was like her skin was dying. It looked like something was eating her skin.”
LeBlanc was in the hospital for 21 days, where she underwent several surgeries as doctors fought to save her life. She was rarely able to speak, but both Vicki and another relative, Shannon Rose, say LeBlanc knew she likely wouldn’t survive.
“She knew she was dying. She understood what was happening to her. One day, she said something like, ‘I’m gonna die today,’ ” Rose says. “She had more worse days than better days.”
Rose and Jennifer say LeBlanc was in high spirits just one of the days during her hospital stay. And in a photo, LeBlanc is shown smiling in the hospital bed wearing a crown.
It’s been nearly three months since LeBlanc’s death and Vicki says the only thing keeping her going is caring for LeBlanc’s parents.
“I just try to take it one day at a time. I’ve still been in Louisiana caring for her parents, and being around them, we’re all kind of grieving together,” she says. “Looking at this bigger picture of being able to give and do for them and to finish out what Nette started has really been a good thing to keep me from focusing on myself and my sadness. It’s really helped me to be able to look forward.”
The couple got married in February 2016, after eight years of dating. And Vicki couldn’t help but become emotional when speaking about the pain of losing her wife.
“She was very outspoken and I’m a marshmallow … she would always just say it like it was. She was fun and everybody enjoyed being around her,” she says through tears. “It’s hard finding somebody you’re never bored with, that you can be with 24/7 and just enjoy their company. That part is hard. It’s hard to find somebody that has your back.”