Second of two parts
Each day, each hour, Willie and Andrea DuBose think things can't get any worse. And then they do.
Their daughter, Rayna, a graceful athlete, a college basketball player with a radiant smile, an 18-year-old who a week ago had so many possibilities in front of her, is lying in a hospital bed in a coma. For two days, doctors have warned her parents to prepare themselves: She may not live.
She came to the University of Virginia Medical Center in the belly of a helicopter, with her blood pressure dropping and her body convulsing. Her parents had raced south from their home in Columbia, Md., to meet her here in Charlottesville, Va., while her Virginia Tech basketball coach, Bonnie Henrickson, raced north from Blacksburg, wondering how she could have possibly missed the warning signs. Rayna had been sick for a few days, dehydrated, exhausted and irritable, but it didn't seem like anything serious. By the time she was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial strain that affects 3,000 people in the United States each year, it looked as if it might already be too late to save her.
Doctors initially gave her an experimental drug called Protein C to fight the infection. But her medical records show they stopped the drug shortly afterward for fear it was causing internal bleeding.
Since her arrival at the hospital around 5:15 a.m. on Wednesday, April 3, 2002, her parents have clung to their faith. They've begged her to keep fighting. But every moment of calm is followed by chaos.
On Thursday, she suffers a heart attack.
Next, her lungs collapse.
Then word comes that, along with her kidneys, her liver is failing.
Doctors are working frantically, trying to save her. In the waiting room, her parents feel helpless. The only thing they can do is pray.
She could be so beautiful with a basketball in her hands.
Her freshman year at Tech, Rayna rarely played for extended stretches. She was frustrated, sick of all the running in practice, tired of being yelled at. She even told her best friend she wished she could quit. But there were nights when all the work seemed worth it.
In January 2002, in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, she had come off the bench toward the end of a lopsided contest against Vermont, and for 10 minutes, she recaptured the grace, the poetry and the muscle that had been missing from her game since high school. She ran the floor, caught passes in traffic, yanked down rebounds, and calmly nailed fast-break jumpers.
With just a sliver of playing time, she scored 13 points, and with every basket, the girls on the bench, the teammates who adored her sense of humor, squealed with joy. Even Bonnie, who had barked at Rayna all season, couldn't resist a smile. She ran the court so hard, with such determination, the muscles in her foot started to cramp. When she was fouled trying to score one last basket, Bonnie called out to the referee to get his attention.
Hey, I think I got one hurt out there, she said. I think I need to get her out of the game.
The referee looked back at Rayna, who was standing at the free-throw line grinning, soaking up the polite applause from the crowd and the roars from her teammates.
I think, the referee told Bonnie, she's going to be fine.
Finally, Rayna's condition is stable. The swelling in her brain has stopped. She's still in a coma, still not breathing on her own and may have brain damage. But at least her parents can see her. After a few hours, they ask Bonnie if she'd like to join them in her room. The coach tiptoes in, worried about what she might find.
Tubes run in and out of Rayna's body; machines beep rhythmically as they force her heart to beat and her lungs to breathe. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Bonnie reaches out and touches Rayna's right hand.
It is ice cold.
With her other hand, Bonnie feels Rayna's right arm just below the shoulder.
It is warm.
Inch by inch, she moves her hands toward one another, until they're nearly touching.
Just below the elbow, she stops, her hands inches apart. One touches warm skin, the other cold.
It is the same with Rayna's legs. Just below the knee, her skin is cold.
Her blood pressure is so low that blood isn't circulating to her extremities. Gangrene is setting in. The tissue in her toes and fingers is dying.
There is nothing we can do to stop it, the DuBoses are later told.
Within a week of her hospitalization, Rayna's doctors talk about amputations.
How can one even begin to imagine Willie and Andrea's sorrow? Even if Rayna doesn't have brain damage, what will life be like for someone who was always the best athlete? How do you let go of that person, the one who comes bounding into the house in summertime, who wrestles with her older brother and throws her arms around her mom?
Hours after learning that amputations will almost certainly be necessary, the DuBoses take a walk. As they slip away, Bonnie sneaks back into Rayna's room. It's what she does whenever Willie and Andrea are gone for a few minutes. She talks to Rayna, tells her she loves her. A doctor has said Rayna can't hear, but Bonnie doesn't care. What can it hurt, after all?
When Willie comes back into the room, he is so quiet Bonnie almost doesn't notice him. He takes his daughter's hand, and he speaks. Maybe he's talking to Bonnie; maybe he's just talking out loud. His voice is calm.
I've already started to work it out in my mind how we're going to tell her. I've already started to formulate a plan.
Hours become days and days become weeks.
Bonnie goes home for a change of clothes, and returns the next day. Willie, a supervisor for American Greetings, and Andrea, who works for the federal government, know they won't be back at their jobs any time soon. They check into a hotel but rarely sleep there at the same time. At least one of them is almost always in Rayna's room. There is no comfort zone, just 24-hour vigilance.
The immediate danger is past, but the unknown is terrifying. How much brain damage will she have? Will she recognize them? Several times, doctors lower Rayna's level of sedation to test her mental status, but the pain is so intense, she bolts up in bed, screaming. She snaps in half three bite blocks, placed in her mouth to keep her from biting through her tongue.
Willie wanders the halls and thinks while Andrea works the phones, reassuring family. Every day, a card or a teddy bear arrives in the mail. The DuBoses' family pastor, the Rev. Robert Turner, drives down to Charlottesville to lead them in daily prayers.
Rayna's 34-year-old brother, Quinton, is there, too, trying to be strong, yet nearly going to pieces. That's my baby sister, he thinks. I'd do anything. I'd switch places with her if I could.
He was always the mature one, the old man before his time, Willie often said. But Rayna made her brother, 16 years her senior, feel like a kid again. Every time he watched her play basketball, he could see a little bit of himself.
And why not? They were close, sharing a passion for basketball, and so much more. He had been given the job of naming her when she was born, and took the job seriously, the same way he approached everything. He went through piles of baby books, trying out dozens of names on his tongue. Only Rayna sounded perfect - like music. In Hebrew, Rayna means "song of the Lord."
She was barely 3 when Quinton, a star player at Columbia's Hammond High School, went off to college on a basketball scholarship. When the family came to see him play at Providence College, she watched in awe. Sitting in the crowd, listening to it erupt every time Quinton scored, planted a seed that would one day blossom in her.
Summers in their little townhouse in Owen Brown were heaven. He'd toss her in the air, tug her ponytail and laugh as she tried to squirm away. Even when she got older, and Quinton got married and had a son, they remained close. She'd call him at all hours, just to tease him and tell him she loved him.
Now here he was staring down at her in a hospital bed, wondering if she'd ever walk again.
From a single blink of an eye, hope emerges.
After three weeks, doctors again reduce Rayna's sedation to test her mental status. There's still a tube in her throat, and she can't talk. Her eyes are so red, she's almost unrecognizable. But after a while, she's blinking after every question: Once for yes, twice for no.
She recognizes us! She knows who we are! Oh, thank God!
They will never know for certain what saved her from brain damage. But for Willie and Andrea, Protein C - the experimental medicine she was briefly given - will always be "the miracle drug."
When Willie brings Bonnie into the room, she thinks, OK, maybe Rayna recognizes her mom and dad. But she's not going to know who I am. No way.
Rayna, she says, if you know who I am, stick your tongue out at me.
Bam. Rayna's tongue shoots out, as if to say, You mean like this, Coach?
Like the DuBoses, Bonnie is elated. But as she leaves Rayna's room, the coach's smile fades.
Now she's going to know, Bonnie thinks. All her life, she's had a gift. She looked at herself in the mirror and saw an athlete staring back. That's over now.
No one knows what to say. There are days when they try to convince one another that Rayna's hands feel warmer, but in her heart, Bonnie knows they're only trying to avoid the facts.
Rayna can see her hands, black, wrinkled and atrophying from lack of circulation. One day, she motions for a nurse to pull the sheet back. She wants to see her feet. No one can muster the courage to do it.
Rayna won't look her father in the eye. He tries to catch her gaze, but she turns away again and again. It's as if one look from Willie, one sustained moment of contact between father and daughter, will confirm all the fears swirling inside her head.
They squeeze into her room: her parents, her coach, several nurses, a psychiatrist and the hospital chaplain. They're all here, with Dr. Adam Katz, a plastic surgeon who does most of the talking.
I know you know there's been some damage, the doctor tells Rayna.
She nods her head.
You'll need to have a series of surgeries, and that will allow us to determine how much damage has been done. We'll start with your fingers, and I promise I'll save as much of your arms and legs as possible.
She meets his words with silence. Then, slowly, she speaks, the tube in her throat allowing only a whisper .
Please. Wait. Maybe the blood will start flowing again. Maybe if we just wait, you won't have to amputate.
Dr. Katz does not hesitate. I'm sorry, Rayna, he says. There's just too much damage.
Again, silence. Then: Will I walk?
The best-case scenario, Katz says, is that we go in and evaluate the damage and you walk out of here on your own. The worst-case scenario is you walk with some assistance.
Rayna's eyes scan the room until they find her coach at the end of the bed.
Will I play?
In the seconds that pass, Bonnie sees Rayna running down the court, stopping on a dime and burying a jump shot. The points she has scored, the rebounds - how do I tell her that's all over?
Before Bonnie can answer, Dr. Katz has a reply.
Yes, Rayna, but not at the level you're playing now.
Now Bonnie finds words: Even if you can't play, you'll be a student assistant, Rayna. You'll travel with us, you'll be on the bench, and you'll always be a member of this team. Always.
Rayna nods, satisfied for the moment.
Later, alone with Bonnie in her room, Rayna wants to talk. She is exhausted, and it is difficult for Bonnie to understand what she is trying to say. Once, twice, three times Rayna tries to speak. Frustrated, her eyes fill with tears.
OK, Rayna, Bonnie says, let's do it like charades. Is it a person, place or thing?
Australia, Rayna says. Can I still go?
Even when things weren't going well during freshman year, Rayna and her roommate, Erin Gibson, would dream about 2004, how much fun it would be when they traveled with the team to Australia to play in exhibition games. It sounded like an adventure, all the way across the world, and she didn't want to miss it.
It takes a minute for Rayna's words to register with Bonnie.
The team trip in 2004? Can you come to Australia with us?
Rayna nods her head.
Omigod! Of course, you can go, Rayna.
In time, in the weeks and months to come, the real meaning of Rayna's question with resonate with Bonnie: When can I start living my life again?
On May 1, 2002, a team of doctors remove Rayna's hands and feet. Seven days later, on May 8, they amputate her limbs: her arms 4 inches below the elbow, her legs 6 inches below the knees. She'll have 10 operations in all.
Willie and Andrea call family members and close friends, but there are so many people to notify, they can't reach everyone. The next day, the University of Virginia Medical Center releases a statement to the media, saying Rayna has undergone a "bilateral amputation of the upper and lower extremities." It does not elaborate.
Rayna's best friend, her oldest friend, Monique Cook, is driving to work in Columbia when she hears Rayna's name on the radio. She has tried several times to see Rayna, but each time Willie and Andrea have told her the same thing: Now just isn't a good time.
Monique has tried to be patient, but she and Rayna have been like sisters, ever since they were in elementary school together. They know every secret, every story, every detail of one another's lives. They even ended up going to the same college, hanging out each week in Rayna's dorm watching soap operas. Monique's been doing her best, trying to be strong ever since Rayna got sick, but it's been hard not seeing her. In her car, taken by surprise, Monique turns up the radio volume.
We regret to bring you this sad news today. Former Oakland Mills basketball player Rayna DuBose, a freshman at Virginia Tech who was stricken with meningitis in April, had to have a bilateral amputation of her upper and lower extremities yesterday.
Screaming. All Monique can hear now is the sound of her own screaming. She pulls her car over to the side of the road.
In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech's assistant coaches break the news to Rayna's teammates. For several hours, her roommate, Erin, is crying so hard, she can barely breathe. She and Rayna were so different, and yet they'd grown so close. Rayna was always making her laugh, encouraging her not to get so down, to not take things so seriously. In Erin's head, she keeps trying to imagine Rayna without hands and feet, but it's impossible.
She can't scratch her nose. She can't sit up because she can't catch herself if she starts to fall. And of course, there is the pain.
Her right arm produces the worst of it. Her initial amputation has left the bone near her elbow exposed. To regenerate healthy tissue, and to fight infection, Dr. Katz decides to cut open a flap in the skin around Rayna's stomach, tuck the arm inside, and sew it up. Eventually, the body will heal what medicine cannot.
But for three weeks, she can barely move. Her father, trying to imagine how much focus this requires, wraps his arm in a towel and fashions a sling. He lies on his hotel bed and stares at the ceiling. After 20 minutes, he damn near goes crazy.
At times, Rayna's pain is accompanied by panic. In the hotel one evening, around midnight, Willie picks up the phone, and all he can hear is his baby girl screaming. Violent, ear-piercing screams that go on and on and never die out. She's a room away from the doctor holding the phone, but to Willie and Andrea, it sounds as if Rayna is inside the receiver.
We can't get her to calm down, the doctor says. Please come.
When they arrive, she's thrashing and crying, oblivious to everything except the pain. Willie and Andrea talk with her, pleading with her to breathe, to calm down. But nothing seems to work.
Finally, Willie climbs into his daughter's bed and lies on top of her, holding her still. So still, he can feel her heartbeat.
The minutes creep by. It's impossible to say how many. Eventually, the screaming stops.
There are many bad nights. But none quite like this.
Monique isn't taking no for an answer. Again and again, she calls Willie and Andrea and begs them to let her come to the hospital. Please, she says, she's my best friend in the whole world. I need to see her. I have to see her.
She's just not ready, Monique, Andrea says. I'm sorry.
And so Monique makes a tape: Hey, Rayna, it's me. It's Monique. I love you and I miss you so much. I want you to know that. These are some of our favorite songs. I can't wait to see you. I just wanted you to hear my voice. I love you!
A few days later, Monique's cell phone rings. It's Rayna, her voice barely a whisper.
Don't talk, Monique says. I can hear you breathing, and that's all that matters. I just wanted to say I love you.
A few days later, Monique is tiptoeing down the hospital hall to Rayna's room with Ivy Baker, another close friend of Rayna's from high school. The visit is awkward at first, but before long, the three of them are laughing, joking, gossiping and watching Passions on TV.
Of course, Rayna's teammates want to see her, too. They pepper their coach with questions: You get to see her, Bonnie. Why can't we?
It's not that simple, girls, Bonnie tries to explain. I'm not her buddy. I'm her coach. Yes, your bond with her is so much bigger than basketball, but she's still sorting all that out. Be patient.
Bonnie tells Willie and Andrea that if Rayna ever wants to see some of her teammates, she'll have them there in a flash. And one day, when Andrea asks Rayna if she's ready, the answer is a surprise: yes.
Erin is away on a trip, and Fran Recchia - the friend who had gone home with Rayna for Easter right before Rayna got sick - is visiting her own family in Texas. But Sarah Hicks, Molly Owings, Emily Lipton and Crystal Starling are still in Blacksburg for the summer. Bonnie gathers them together, and on the way to Charlottesville, she is blunt: Be prepared to turn around and come home without seeing her. She might change her mind. You might walk into the hospital, hug her parents and get right back in the car.
In the waiting room, the girls practically smother Willie and Andrea, and the DuBoses laugh as they haven't in months. But down the hall, Rayna is crying. She's asking to see Bonnie. Now.
In Rayna's sterile hospital room, Bonnie sits on the edge of the bed. What's going on? she asks. What's wrong?
I'm tired, Rayna says, choking back tears.
Anything else wrong?
No. I'm tired.
I know you're tired, Rayna, Bonnie says, but is there anything else?
For a moment, the room is quiet.
I'm scared, Rayna says. I'm scared of how I look.
Rayna, Bonnie says, if it were Emily Lipton in this bed, would you care what Emily looked like?
No, she says, tears running down her cheeks. I wouldn't care at all.
They don't care either. They just want to see you and tell you how much they love you.
When her teammates file into the room, Rayna doesn't make eye contact. But with some coaxing, she talks. After a while, someone makes her laugh.
OK, Bonnie thinks, maybe this is going to be OK.
Even with health insurance coverage, the cost of Rayna's medical care is hundreds of thousands of dollars. And though money is the last thing on Willie and Andrea's mind, in Columbia the community is thinking for them. On June 11, Oakland Mills holds "An Evening for Rayna" at the high school gym.
Throngs of people show up, eager to participate in the walk-athon, the bake sale, the slam-dunk contest. A man who has never met Rayna pays for a $1 hot dog with a $20 bill and tells the cashier to keep the change. The event raises $51,000 - and boosts the DuBoses' spirits, too.
Willie and Andrea have driven back to Columbia for the occasion, and Quinton is videotaping the whole thing so Rayna can see it someday. It's the first night both Willie and Andrea have spent away from her since she got sick.
Another evening, Bonnie is keeping Rayna company while her parents are out. Rayna's doctors are worried about depression, and there is talk of having Rayna see a psychologist. Bonnie notes she never seems angry, never lashes out at the world for dealing her this unimaginable twist of fate. I don't know that I could be that strong, the coach thinks. What's going on inside her head? She decides to ask.
Rayna, Bonnie says, emotionally, where are you right now?
What do you mean?
I mean, hour after hour you lie in this bed, and I don't know how you do it. Are you angry? Are you mad? Do you sit here and ask why? Because I would if I were you.
As usual, Rayna is silent at first, and her answer, when it comes, is deceptively simple.
No, I'm not mad, Rayna says. No, I don't sit and wonder.
Then where are you? Bonnie says. What are you thinking about?
School. That's all I think about. Coming back to school.
After 97 days in the hospital, Rayna leaves Charlottesville in an ambulance for Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore. It is July 8, 2002. She is in a wheelchair and taking 17 different medications.
Her kidneys, which doctors initially thought would be damaged beyond repair, are functioning fine now. But she must relearn everything - how to feed herself, brush her teeth, get dressed and use a bathroom. She can't even push her glasses up when they slide down her nose.
Her new prosthetic arms and legs, the ones custom fit and made of a soft plastic that looks almost like real flesh, won't be ready for months. For now, she wears arms with hooks on the end that open and close when she rolls her shoulders and puts tension on a cable wired inside a harness on her back.
Twice a week, she has three hours of therapy at the Curtis Hand Center at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. On her first day, her occupational therapist, Dale Eckhaus, exhausts all of her tricks trying to get Rayna to open up. The therapist wants to make these three hours feel like something other than torture, but Rayna responds with one-word answers. She has a wall around her, and there is no getting inside.
Eckhaus doesn't give up easily.
What about bologna sandwiches on white bread? Isn't that your favorite food, Rayna? What if we practiced making bologna sandwiches?
Eckhaus has rehearsed this question, and others like it, in her head at home, late at night. She can't stop thinking about Rayna. Her own daughter is Rayna's age.
So, how about it? This way you won't have to ask your mom for help every time you get hungry.
A tiny smile, a crack in the wall.
Rayna learns how to make a bologna sandwich. Later, she will learn how to brush her teeth. Soon, she is combing her hair, taking off a T-shirt, adjusting her glasses. When she can't do things, she wants to rage; the last thing she wants is help. Her mother, who attends every session in the beginning, tries to adjust Rayna's hat one day, and Rayna is livid.
I want to try to do this myself, she tells anyone who will listen. It's the simple tasks, sometimes, that keep her sane.
Rayna's physical therapist, Mike McMaines, plays the role of the bad cop, the drill sergeant. He makes her sweat and swear, but he also promises that, with some work, she can walk again. First, she must learn how to get from her wheelchair to her bed, and how to overcome fear. With no balance, and no way to catch herself if she leans too much in one direction, she is terrified.
On Oct. 3, her prosthetic legs arrive; her arms show up a few days later. Bonnie has made the trip up from Blacksburg, and everyone is pulsing with nervous energy. How will Rayna react when she tries to take her first steps? What if it doesn't go well?
Wait. There's a problem with her arms. The prostheses are - how do you say this? - Caucasian. Everyone has a good laugh over this mistake, but it's also kind of embarrassing. Eventually, Rayna will get ones that match her skin, but for now, she's stuck with these. Rayna can't stop crossing her new arms, trying to hide them from the world one at a time.
With her father on one side for balance, and McMaines on the other, she stands for the first time. Her legs aren't fitted correctly yet, making her 6 feet 6, about 3 inches taller than usual. Slowly and deliberately, she puts one foot ahead of the other, arching her back because it feels as if she's going to topple forward. Sweat drips down her face. For the first time in eight months, she is walking.
At the end of the session, Rayna sits down again, and someone pulls out a basketball. Eckhaus holds it out, and Rayna forms a basket with her new arms. She catches the soft throw and, with a smile, flips the ball back. No one can stop grinning.
As a coach, as a friend, and as a surrogate parent, Bonnie has never been more proud.
She's going to be OK, Bonnie thinks. She's going to get her life back, and I'm going to do whatever I can to help her.
Just 16 days after those tentative first steps, Rayna is back on campus. She's still in a wheelchair, still figuring out how to work her new arms and legs, but this return to Blacksburg is scripted: It's homecoming. Virginia Tech will play Rutgers, and the school wants to use the event to raise money for Rayna's medical bills.
Before the football game, she makes a surprise visit to basketball practice and is mobbed by her teammates. Many of them will never completely let go of the question they asked themselves so many times over the last several months: Why Rayna? Why not me? Even though meningitis can spread like a common cold, even though it can be passed along by coughing, sharing a water bottle or simply breathing the same air as an infected person, they were spared.
All across campus, people have taped up signs that scream "WELCOME BACK RAYNA!" in orange and black. At the football game, more than 50 Virginia Tech student-athletes wearing T-shirts with 15 on the back -Rayna's number - ask for donations. They raise $50,000; an anonymous donor later pitches in another $50,000.
The game begins, but in the first quarter, it's called to a stop. Rayna, her parents and Bonnie drive to the middle of the field in a golf cart, where coach Frank Beamer stands, waiting to hand Rayna a football signed by the team. The crowd of 65,000 gets to its feet and the shouting and clapping is so loud, you can barely hear the announcer on the PA system. When Rayna braces herself on her father's arm and stands up to wave, the cheering grows thunderous.
She puts on a strong face for reporters after the game, speaking publicly for the first time since her illness. "It's a really good feeling to know a lot of people care," she says. "Really, things haven't been that bad."
Her parents let her go dancing with her teammates on this night, and she feels like a college student again.
A month later, when she returns to campus for the women's basketball season opener on Nov. 22, 2002, the wheelchair is gone. She's using crutches with confidence, and when her teammates walk out of the tunnel, onto the floor, she walks with them.
The game begins, and Rayna sits quietly on the bench as Virginia Tech struggles against UNC-Greensboro. In the stands, across the court, her parents try to watch the game, but Willie can't take his eyes off his daughter. During a timeout, Rayna tries to stand up without her crutches, loses her balance, and teeters backward, flopping safely into her seat. Stubborn and undaunted, Rayna cracks a smile, then stands up again. Carefully putting one foot in front of another, she walks over to the huddle, sticks her head in the crowd, and listens as Bonnie talks strategy.
"Did you see that?" Willie says, nudging his wife. "My goodness. She's fearless."
When can I go back to school?
The question, which she whispered before she had even left the hospital, is practically being shouted now. Day after day, Rayna brings it up with her parents. I want to go to classes. I want to live with Erin and Fran. I want to be in an off-campus apartment. I want to be part of the team again.
Ready or not, her crutches are cast aside, and there's a steadfast rule in the DuBose household: Don't give Rayna any help unless she asks for it.
Sometimes, Willie and Andrea are sitting on the couch when they hear a loud crash upstairs. Andrea's instincts, everything she knows about being a mother, tell her to sprint to Rayna's room. But Willie squeezes his wife's hand, shakes his head. If she needs help, he says, she'll call for us. You know Rayna. It will only make her mad if you go up there.
When the women's basketball team travels to College Park to play Maryland on Dec. 11, Bonnie invites Rayna to spend the night at the team hotel. She hasn't been away from her parents since she was hospitalized. The DuBoses agree, and spend the night fighting the urge to worry.
In January 2003, Rayna is on a plane, flying with the team to Miami and spending an entire week away from home. Every day, Bonnie is on her cell phone, letting Rayna's parents know she is fine.
In therapy, Rayna is moving so fast that Eckhaus is running out of things for her to do. She's so good with her prosthetic hands, she can pick up potato chips without breaking them. When McMaines asks one day if she wants to try running, she curtly tells him: OK, but I've already run.
When was that? he asks.
The other day, at my house, she says.
OK. Why did you run?
Well, she says, I had to go to the bathroom. Bad.
In late February, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association announces it will award Rayna its Most Courageous Award at the men's Final Four. The organization flies Rayna and her parents to New Orleans for the games and at the April 7 awards banquet, Bonnie stands in front of a room full of sports writers and tells the story of Rayna DuBose.
The Tech coach's eyes fill with tears and her voice shakes, but her words bring the room to its feet.
"This is the story of a champion," Bonnie says. "A champion of faith, a champion of courage, and now, a champion of her own independence."
She's so much like her father sometimes, it's scary. All those years ago, he was determined to go out on his own, leave Virginia, find happiness for his family. Now Willie DuBose can't help but shake his head. Every day his daughter, still the stubborn ballerina who reluctantly traded her toeshoes for high-tops and held her own on boys' teams, becomes more determined to leave Columbia, to go out on her own again.
Her parents want her to live in a dorm, on the ground floor, in a handicapped-accessible room. But Rayna will have none of it. She's barreling ahead with plans to get an off-campus place with Fran and Erin, logic be damned.
After too many frustrating arguments, she stops seeking her parents' permission and starts telling them what she's going to do. Her scholarship is still good - Bonnie has made certain of that - so she'll get a housing allowance just like her teammates. Why be stuck in some dorm? The way she figures it, she can ride the bus to campus. She already rides one into Baltimore by herself for physical therapy. How is this any different?
Summer school is the compromise. If that goes smoothly, she'll go back in the fall. Bonnie says she can work at the summer Virginia Tech youth basketball camp, and if she likes it, maybe she can work as student assistant for the team during the season. That idea has bounced around in Rayna's head ever since she showed up in the gym at Oakland Mills after her illness, and her old coach, Marcus Lewis, asked her to work with his freshmen. He'd made her promise him one thing: Don't feel sorry for yourself. The more she thought about it, the more it became her mantra when everyone else wanted to find someone to blame.
Why don't you sue?
Somebody has to be at fault, right?
She's so sick of hearing those questions. People in Columbia ask them constantly. You know why I don't? she answers. Because I'm moving on with my life. I don't care about any of that. I was vaccinated for meningitis when I came to college. It was just bacteria. It wasn't anyone's fault. I don't have time to worry about that nonsense.
Rayna enrolls in an online class in human development, thinking maybe she'll choose it as her major. And you know what? She's going to take a full load of classes. Things are going to be just like they were. Aren't they?
Bonnie tells the DuBoses that the coaches are willing to do anything. They'll pick Rayna up and drive her to class if necessary. There are no obstacles Bonnie is unwilling to confront.
But before summer school begins, the coach sits down with Erin and Fran.
I know you think this is going to be fun and great, but it's going to be hard work, too, Bonnie tells them.
Rayna's not going to be completely independent every second of the day.
Do you two realize what you're signing on for?
Absolutely, they tell her. We're scared, too. How could we not be? But we'll take care of her.
Rayna sleeps the entire five-hour drive to Blacksburg. Outside the car window, the Virginia countryside whizzes by. The DuBoses have done this drive many times now, but everyone understands without saying it that this time is different.
Rayna's apartment won't be available for another month, so they arrive at a temporary place where she and Fran will hole up for the summer session. The apartment, previously inhabited by several basketball players, is a mess. Rayna sits in the living room while Willie, Andrea and assistant coaches Karen Lange and Angie Lee give the place a rigorous scrub down. It was Angie who stayed with Bonnie and the family those first few days in the hospital. It was Karen who had to break the news to the team that Rayna was sick and might not make it.
A local television crew arrives to interview Rayna about her return to school.
"I'm excited to be back," Rayna says, smiling into the camera on this momentous day, May 17, 2003. "I'm getting on with my life."
She doesn't mention the phantom pain she still deals with sometimes, when it feels like her arms are still there. Her doctors gave her medication for it, but after a while, she stopped taking it. I'll just deal with it. No way am I going to be on medication for the rest of my life, she tells her mom.
She's doesn't talk about how tired she gets if she has to walk across campus either. She hates bringing that stuff up. She just wants people to treat her the way they always did.
After an hour of mopping floors and scrubbing ceilings, Willie walks outside and leans against the family car. His eyes survey the neighborhood. The apartment is at the bottom of a steep hill, and the bus stop is uphill, a half mile away.
"I keep looking at this hill and shaking my head," he says. "I don't see how she can do this. She's going to fall down, and we're never even going to hear about it."
The next morning, it's time to say goodbye. Fran is taking a friend back to North Carolina, and Rayna wants to go along for the ride, so they show up early at the hotel where Rayna's parents are staying, dressed in Virginia Tech warm-up gear. Andrea hugs Rayna and Fran in the parking lot, and makes them promise to drive safely. Willie doesn't say much, until he asks Rayna to take a short walk with him. He looks her in the eye and in a low, quiet voice he lets his daughter go one more time.
I want you to be safe. I want you to call us if you need anything. I love you.
There are no tears today. Rayna climbs in the passenger door, and the car pulls slowly out of the parking lot. Willie's eyes stay fixed on the vehicle until it turns up the street and he can no longer see it. He takes a deep breath and smiles.
"This," he says, "is a day of rejoicing."
It's Monday morning, 15 minutes before Rayna's first class begins at 8. She steps out of the house wearing white pants, an orange, long-sleeved shirt, brown shoes with the laces untied, and a black Virginia Tech backpack on her shoulders. On the tiny front porch, the sunlight hits her face, and for just a moment, Rayna DuBose could be any college student. Her long brown hair hides much of her face, but it cannot hide the fact that she is alive, she is ready, and she is, without question, beautiful.
On campus, Fran drops her off in front of a gray concrete building with a manicured lawn, and then speeds away to her own class. With careful, measured steps, Rayna walks on legs made of rubber and titanium, and guides them with muscles that were strengthened by hope. She walks slowly to her classroom, opening a heavy wooden door on the way with a hand that is guided by the tension of a thin wire cable.
In the months to come, and the year ahead, so much will change. She'll attend countless basketball practices, rising at absurd hours simply because her teammates are doing it as well. She'll go on road trips, worry her parents because she doesn't call home enough, laugh and party with friends again and live in her own apartment. She'll pick up a basketball one day, try to shoot a few hoops with her new arms, just to see what it feels like. She'll even say goodbye to Bonnie, who will take a job as head coach at Kansas University.
But all that is in the future. At this moment, Rayna walks alone into a classroom and takes a seat in the very last row. She glances at the other students, most of whom are already in their seats. Many are looking in her direction.
She doesn't mind. In time, they will know her story. She was a ballerina once, then a basketball player. Today she's a student, taking her life back, one delicate step at a time.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun