DuBose inspiring others with her story

March 24, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

At a little before 2 on a sunny weekday afternoon, Rayna DuBose is perched elegantly on a chair in a photo studio, waiting for the camera to roll.

She's there to tape an interview about success and achieving one's dreams. It will be shown at the Final Four of this year's NCAA women's basketball tournament. And as she sits calmly with her prosthetic hands on her lap and addresses the camera in a clear, strong voice, you think: who wouldn't be inspired by this woman?

Maybe you remember the story of Rayna DuBose, now 27. Once heard, it's not exactly a story you forget.

Rayna was a star basketball player at Oakland Mills High and went on to win a full scholarship at Virginia Tech. But that was in another life. And that life ended after her freshman season in April 2002, when she was air-lifted to Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville with her blood pressure plummeting and her body convulsing.

The diagnosis was meningococcal meningitis, a rare bacterial infection. After a heart attack, her lungs collapsed and her kidneys and liver failed and she spent three weeks in a coma fighting for her life.

When she emerged from the coma, there were more problems. Blood wasn't getting to her fingers and toes. Gangrene was setting in. One day she opened her eyes to find her parents, her college coach and doctors in white coats somberly circling her bed.

This can't be good, she thought.

"My plastic surgeon looked me dead in my eyes and said: 'We're going to have to amputate all of your limbs,'" she recalled. "I just broke down. My hands and my feet [were] what got me to where I was."

During a series of 10 operations, her arms were amputated four inches below the elbow. Her legs were amputated six inches below the knees.

What followed was a long, painful, frustrating rehabilitation. She spent 96 days at the hospital in Charlottesville and then was moved to Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore. Fitted with prosthetic arms and legs months later, she had to re-learn the most basic tasks: how to walk, eat, groom herself, use a cell phone, etc.

"All I knew about prostheses was what I knew as a child," she said. "Captain Hook, the peg leg and the hook finger."

At a birthday party thrown for her that October at her old high school in Columbia, DuBose tried out her new limbs for the first time. The legs were fine. There was a problem with the arms, though.

A big problem. They were for a white person. And DuBose is an African-American. The mistake got laughs from everyone else. But Rayna, who was already feeling more than a tad self-conscious, didn't exactly yuk it up.

"I was angry," she said. "I had my arms covered the whole time. When someone tried to give me a hug, I just gave them my shoulder."

Soon enough, she got new arms that matched her skin. And as the days and weeks and months went by, DuBose learned to live her new life. She threw herself into her therapy, determined to perform even the most intricate tasks by herself. None of it came easy.

"But as Frederick Douglass said: 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress,' " she said.

By January 2003, she felt strong enough to travel to Blacksburg and take in a few Virginia Tech women's basketball games. She also traveled with the team to assorted away games. The next month, she flew to New Orleans, where the U.S. Basketball Writers Association presented her with its Most Courageous Award at the men's Final Four.

Everywhere she went, people marveled at her inner strength, her resilience, her composure. She was the subject of a segment on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel." And not long after she returned to Virginia Tech as a full-time student in the summer of 2003, DuBose knew what she wanted to do with her life: use her real-life story to inspire others.

Now, four years after graduating from college with a degree in consumer studies, she has her own motivational speaking business. She did 40 speaking gigs all over the country last year and hopes to do about 60 this year. Mostly she travels by herself, whether flying or driving her Saturn VUE from her townhouse in Owings Mills.

Her first gig as a pro was in front of a tough crowd: 200 inmates at a youth detention center in Pennsylvania.

You talk about a trial by fire.

"I was a little nervous," DuBose says.

She showed them the HBO show. She spoke of her years-long ordeal. She talked about her prosthetics, demonstrated how they worked, answered every question.

You could say it was a captive audience. Except no one was even moving a muscle, never mind making a break for it.

"I was like 'Oh my God, I've got these kids' attention!' " she recalled.

These days, when she's not off on a speaking gig in the winter, she's coaching the girls varsity basketball team at Marriotts Ridge High in Howard County.

And you'll love this: With her new leg prosthetics, the J-shaped ones especially designed for athletics, she even scrimmages with the players.

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