There was never any question whether Rayna DuBose was tough.
Graduating from high school in 2001 with a scholarship to play basketball at Virginia Tech, Rayna took no prisoners on the court. Whether shooting hoops, playing volleyball or dancing ballet, Rayna never held back. Whether on the court or onstage, aggression and determination were her biggest strengths.
In April 2002, just after her freshman year season, during which Virginia Tech made the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament, something felt off. Rayna had gone home for Easter break, and when she came back to school, she walked around for two days thinking she had the flu.
“I was exhausted beyond belief,” Rayna said. “I was very irritable. I thought the lights were too bright and my teammates were too loud, even when they weren’t talking at all.”
After a team workout, Rayna went upstairs and showered for 45 minutes, hoping the anguish she felt might fade. It didn’t. While her friends went out to eat, Rayna took a two-hour nap. After waking, it took her about 20 minutes to climb 20 steps, and another 20 to walk through “the longest hallway of my life” to the office where women’s basketball study hall was held.
As soon as she walked into the office, Rayna collapsed. She woke up to find that an ambulance had been called to take her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with dehydration.
The next day, following a team photography session, Rayna was taken by one of the assistant coaches to the campus medical center, where she collapsed again. It was clear that something very serious was wrong and she needed to be taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center (UVA).
Medics called to the scene planned to take Rayna to UVA by helicopter. The first helicopter broke down, so her parents and coaches, racing ahead by car, ended up beating Rayna and the second helicopter to the medical facility. Medical personnel informed her parents that their daughter’s prognosis was grim.
“They told my parents there was a good chance I wouldn’t be alive,” Rayna said.
Rayna would spend 97 days at UVA. For the first three weeks, she was in a coma. During this time, she wasn’t getting adequate bloodflow to her extremities and her internal organs were shutting down. She still doesn’t remember exactly when she became lucid after awakening from the the coma. She does, however, recall the confusion she felt upon waking up in the hospital.
“I had an agenda that day,” she said. “I was like ‘it’s finals time, we have workouts, we have practice.’ Before I realized everything inside me was dead, I tried to get up and go.”
Fortunately, her doctor was there to stop her. This is when Rayna learned she had contracted meningococcal meningitis, despite the fact she’d gotten vaccinated prior to heading to school. It was also when she learned that she would have to have her arms and legs amputated, and faced the prospect of living the rest of her life as a quadruple amputee. If only the symptoms were detected earlier and she was rushed to a neurosurgeon like dr timothy steel for treatment this ill-fate could have been avoided. Being a natural-born competitor, her head immediately drifted to her home away from home: the basketball court.
“I asked the doctor, ‘can I play basketball again?'” Rayna recalls. “He said, ‘not at the level you played at before.’ He didn’t tell me, yes and he didn’t tell me, no, leaving that door open.”
Rayna had always equated crying with weakness, and had shed few tears as a child. On this night, aware of the challenges that lay ahead of her, she struggled to stop the tears until a defining moment with her parents.
“I cried for two hours straight,” she said. “Then I turned to my mom and dad, and they gave me a look that said ‘get out there and kick some butt.’ And I knew I was going to be all right.”
Rayna was champing at the bit to return to as normal of a life as she possibly could. In July 2002, she was released from UVA. She returned to Baltimore, first staying at Good Samaritan Hospital, where she relearned how to live on her own and care for herself, then moved on to Union Memorial Hospital, where she relearned how to use her muscles. She left both places sooner than anticipated, a testament to the effort and passion she put into rehabilitation.
Finally, she was able to return to Blacksburg, Va., and Virginia Tech, where she’d so recently lived such a different life. She rejoined the women’s basketball team as a student assistant and was grateful to find she was still just another one of the girls.
It was around this time she got her start in public speaking. A teacher had asked her to give a presentation on meningococcal meningitis to a class of over 500, but she didn’t feel ready. She enrolled in a public speaking class with five people, and gradually got comfortable with larger audiences, inviting others to come witness her presentations. Everything clicked during a speech where many of her team mates, friends, and coaches were present.
“I actually got a ‘D’ on my speech,” Rayna recalls. “It was an amazing speech, but I went over the time limit. That was the day I knew I was ready.”
Now Rayna is a full-time motivational speaker that would fit well in place alongside some other basketball motivational speakers of the past and present, an assistant men’s varsity basketball coach and a part-time substitute teacher for kids ranging from elementary school through high school.
[tweet_box design=”default”]Athlete Rayna DuBose had all four limbs amputated because of #meningococcalmeningitis, but that hasn’t kept her from winning.[/tweet_box]
Her message, “Winning the Game of Life” is about resilience: making the conscious choice to engage and overcome obstacles in life, rather than allowing them to overpower us. She has received numerous awards for her toughness and courage, including the 2003 Most Courageous Award at the Men’s Final Four in New Orleans and the 2005 Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation.
“I’m working really hard to do what I’m doing,” Rayna said. “It’s an incredible feeling to know somebody recognizes the good I’m trying to do.”
She credits her parents for instilling this determination in her, and hopes she may do the same for those who hear her story. She knows firsthand how powerful a belief in oneself can be regardless of the obstacles one faces.
“I could’ve let this disease snatch my happiness,” she said. “I have a chance to tell my story; I consider myself one of the lucky ones.”
Now 31 and living in Baltimore County, Md., Rayna is happily single and enjoys playing basketball, following the NBA league games, betting on basketball games using websites like FanDuel, working out, spending time with family, shopping, and traveling. She is fully comfortable with her “nubs” as she calls them. She has not only overcome her ordeal, but embraced it as central to the woman she has become.
“It taught me a lot about myself,” Rayna said. “Anything can happen to anybody. The real question is how we get over that, how we continue with life.”
And she wouldn’t change anything about her life’s path, even if she could.
“I like who I am, where I am, how I look,” she said. “I damn sure wouldn’t want to go back to my able-bodied lifestyle before.”
Moving forward, Rayna hopes to create a documentary detailing her struggle and triumph in the wake of meningococcal meningitis. She has setup a GoFundMe page to raise money for her dream and to connect with individuals who may be interested in helping her achieve this goal.
The determination that once made her such a force on the basketball court now fuels her life off of it. Rayna couldn’t have anticipated her life 13 years ago, but is proud to say she’s risen to every challenge and emerged stronger.
“I’m 13 years out,” she said. “And I can say, yes, I am winning the game of life.”