The Comeback Kid
You could almost trace a straight line from that first basket to a decade later, when she came off the bench for Virginia Tech to score 13 points against the University of Vermont in the National Invitational Tournament. She was only a freshman, but she was beginning to shine. She was starting to show her coach, who called Rayna her “little ballerina,” what she could do. Soon, those passes would be coming her way again. Just like in those youth leagues. Just like when she led Oakland Mills High to the Maryland state championship.
But those next passes took a long time coming. They waited for Rayna to battle bacterial meningitis and sepsis within an inch of her life. They waited for her to spend three weeks in a coma, ninety-seven days in an intensive care unit. To endure months upon months of grueling, painful rehabilitation.
Still, Rayna would not be denied. A year and a half later, she’d be back at practice. Grabbing rebounds. Working with the post players. Even catching passes. Only thing was, with the prosthetic legs, there would be no more pirouettes. And those passes, they were much tougher to catch with her new pair of hands.
Sepsis is like the sixth man of human disease. It never starts the game. Instead, it waits for some other malady—pneumonia, a bacterial infection—to take hold, then it comes off the bench and finishes the job.
Most of the time, a person is able to fight the infection and keep it from spreading. But in sepsis, for reasons still not fully understood, the infection moves into the bloodstream.
The body responds by calling in its heaviest artillery: an overwhelming, system-wide counterattack. Blood vessels become inflamed, and their cell walls leak fluid. The clotting system goes awry, simultaneously causing bleeding and throwing clots that block the tiny blood vessels that feed organs. In trying to beat back infection, the body’s explosive response often proves at least as devastating as the bug itself, causing tissue death and multiple organ failures. All told, a third of the 750,000 Americans per year who develop sepsis die, a toll that equals that of heart attacks, or of all deaths from breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers combined.
Perhaps most frightening is the swiftness with which sepsis can move. In hours or a few days, the illness can kill. Doctors have a saying for it: “Fine in the morning, dead in the evening.”
For Rayna, like most victims of sepsis, the nightmare began routinely enough. It was April of 2002, near the end of her freshman year at Virginia Tech. After classes one Monday, she headed to the weight room, where she launched into a typical off-season workout.
Except by the time she was finished, Rayna was wiped out. In the locker room, she lay down on a couch and fell asleep. With her friends’ help, she eventually dragged herself to study hall, propping herself up against the wall the whole way. When an academic adviser found Rayna sprawled on the floor of study hall, sweating buckets, she called a doctor. Minutes later, an ambulance rushed Rayna to the Montgomery Regional Hospital.
Rayna had no idea of the ordeal that would follow. But to this day, she says, “That was my scariest moment. That first night when I collapsed in study hall and was taken to a hospital.” One morning, she was a healthy, strong Division I scholarship basketball player. By that evening, she was lying in a hospital bed, an IV drip in her arm. And she had no idea what was wrong with her.