Sue Savona

The Savona family poses for a Christmas photo in 2010. Gary Savona was left widowed with nine children after his wife, Sue, died due to complications from an emergency surgery on Dec. 18. (Photo courtesy of Gary Savona)

When Sue Savona experienced severe stomach pains while traveling with her husband, Gary, and nine children to visit family in Green Bay, Wis., they stopped at a hospital in Tulsa, Okla. He continued on to Green Bay to drop off the children and then took a flight back to Tulsa — but he arrived too late.

On Dec. 18, just 24 hours after she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and underwent emergency surgery, Sue Savona died — shocking her family and former colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Gary Savona recalled the urgent phone calls from doctors at the hospital as he rushed to get on a plane back to Tulsa.

“I said, ‘You can’t let her die, we have nine kids,’” he said. “It just happened so quickly.”

The La Cañada High School graduate, 38, had given birth to a baby girl three weeks earlier.

Sue Savona met her husband while doing freelance projection work at JPL.

Gary Savona is a producer at JPL, directing and editing video segments that tell the story of the lab and its missions.

“I never believed that it would happen to her,” Savona said. “She was a very special lady and we’re going to miss her a great deal.”

JPL Media Librarian Sherri Rowe-Lopez got the news from Gary Savona the day after his wife died.

“I was in shock,” she said. “I still am.”

Rowe-Lopez opened a Caltech Employees Federal Credit Union account to allow co-workers to donate to the family. Other JPL workers are covering for Gary Savona while he takes time off.

The four producers who work with him collected photos and videos of the family for a memorial service at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montrose scheduled for Wednesday, Rowe-Lopez said.

Sue Savona was a bright woman who was dedicated to her family, Rowe-Lopez said.

The two bonded over their Wisconsin roots and passion for sports, she added.

Jess Doherty, who started as a producer alongside Gary Savona at JPL in 2005, said he was in “total disbelief” when he heard of Sue Savona's death.

“It is unbelievable,” he said. “Everybody likes Gary and I'm sure this loss just hit very deeply here at the lab.”

Paul Savona, Gary's brother, said the dilemma now is figuring out how best to care for the children: Kali, 16; John, 14; Sam, 13; Jenna, 11; Emma, 10; Sara, 8; Josh, 6; Ava, 2 and Chloe, one month.

Family and friends have offered to help look after the baby for now.

“Gary is hurting and distraught and emotional,” he said. “He's hanging in there. He has a lot of support.”

Contributions can be made to the Sue Savona Memorial Trust Fund at the Caltech Credit Union, 528 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada, or Bank of America, 2320 Honolulu Ave., Montrose.

Parishioners at Holy Redeemer church have registered the family for a meals delivery service. Participants can sign up for a day to donate or cook a meal for the family.

For more information, call (818) 249-2008.