Easter morning, 2008.
Dawn Dubsky opened her eyes, her consciousness rising through a soup of painkillers and sedatives. She had been waking sporadically, and every time she did, those watching over her hospital bed shared the same bleak thought:
This could be the day she figured out what happened.
It had been one month since Dubsky, then 32, a pediatric nurse fresh from a trip to Africa, entered a Chicago emergency room with a crushing headache and a 103-degree fever -- signs, she correctly guessed, that she had contracted malaria, a disease that claims nearly 1 million lives each year in the developing world.
That human wreckage goes largely unnoticed here. An army of public health workers eliminated the mosquito-borne illness in the United States more than 50 years ago, and on the rare occasion a traveler brings it home today, it is usually no match for Western medicine.
Dubsky's case was different. Despite the efforts of 15 doctors, the microscopic parasite that causes malaria rampaged through her bloodstream, blowing up cells, clogging veins and arteries and shutting down vital organs. Her skin blistered and turned purple. She started to die an inch at a time.
A barrage of drugs finally subdued the parasite, and Dubsky pulled through. But survival had come at a price -- one she was just starting to recognize.
Dubsky peered at the bandages covering her body. Her face clouded with confusion. She looked again. At last, she spoke.
"Mom," she said, "where are my arms?"
"Oh, Dawn," her mother replied. "Your arms and legs are gone."
Malaria had destroyed so much of Dubsky's tissue that a surgeon had to amputate her limbs just below the elbows and knees. The procedure saved her life but left her utterly transformed.
Dubsky had been a woman of fierce independence, an adventurer who ran marathons, skied the Rockies and traveled the world on little more than a whim. Now she was helpless, unable to even sit up by herself.
It was too much to fathom -- too much to bear. And so, in a furious voice, Dubsky asked a question:
"Why didn't you let me die?"
Her mother begged her to never say that again, but the thought endured, following Dubsky along a path of pain. Only gradually would a new purpose reveal itself, one that joined her suffering to a titanic global struggle.
Why wasn't she dead?
The answer was simple. Her life's work had yet to begin.
Nothing to fear
No one was surprised when Dawn Dubsky decided to become a nurse after graduating from Andrew High School in Tinley Park. She was a born caregiver, covering up for her older siblings' teenage indiscretions and comforting her mother through the strain of divorce.
Fight against malaria: Battle of life and death
Part 1 in a 2-part series: Mosquito bite in west Africa turned body of young adventurer against her.
(Read more in Part 2)
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