Her strength keeps family going

It seemed like a regular day.

Kaitlyn Dobrow, 18, woke up in time for her eight-hour shift as a receptionist at the Days Inn & Suites of Huntington Beach. She worked from 3 to 11 p.m. until her best friend, Kristen Kidd, gave her a ride to the gym, where they exercised together.

Back home about 1 a.m., she texted Kidd, "I just puked my guts out and my joints hurt so bad."

She arose between 9 and 9:30 a.m. Feb. 12, with complaints of a headache and body pain, but Advil provided no relief. Kathleen Dobrow, concerned by her daughter's immobility and the appearance of bruises on her skin, called the paramedics about 2 p.m.

Her fears were confirmed at Hoag Hospital: Kaitlyn was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.


The ailment

Today, the Dobrow family is haunted by how the past six weeks have permanently altered the course of their lives.

Kaitlyn, an athletic teenager who played a number of sports, learned ballet and tap dancing, and enjoyed boxing and mixed martial arts, has had all four limbs amputated.

During her two days at Hoag's Intensive Care Unit, a cloudy lumbar sample had doctors tackling the infection with strong antibiotics. However, she quickly developed meningococcal septicemia.

The bacteria entered Kaitlyn's bloodstream, damaging blood vessels and tissues, causing bleeding into her skin, said her father, Don, who described "maroon, almost purple looking" lesions covering all exposed parts of her skin.

"She is what the doctors are calling an 'extreme case,'" he said, explaining that the source of her illness remains unknown.

According to him, the team at Hoag, anticipating that Kaitlyn's skin was going to blister and open, decided that she needed to be transferred to the UC Irvine Medical Center, home to a Regional Burn Center.

While being treated with antibiotics and topical creams during her five days in the medical intensive care unit (MICU), Kaitlyn contracted pseudomonas.

"It's a common bacteria that ordinarily our immune systems fight off because we have other bacteria in our bodies that are the enemy of this thing and keep it in check," Don said. "But when you put a person on broad-spectrum antibiotics, you've now neutralized all the other bacteria, and the pseudomonas just goes crazy. She has open wounds, so it easily got into and under the skin."

Kaitlyn has now undergone nine major surgeries, leading to the amputation of her left arm below her shoulder and her right arm above the elbow, while both legs still have about 9 centimeters below the knee, according to Dr. Nicole Bernal, assistant clinical professor at UCI's Regional Burn Center.

The first skin graft was performed last week, and it is estimated that eight more lie ahead. Having lost 50% of her skin surface, Kaitlyn has limited viable skin to serve as donor sites, forcing doctors to reuse the same spots for the procedures, Don said.


Holding up

Although heavily sedated and plagued by skin pain and the agony associated with amputation sites, Kaitlyn is the glue holding her family together.

Kathleen returns home every other day to shower and get a change of clothes, but is otherwise at Kaitlyn's bedside. Don spends time working on his laptop in the waiting room or talking to people on the street and in the hospital. When at home, he writes — chronicling every step of each day — in what he calls "a personal purging."

The couple have drawn on their strong Christian faith and "enormous prayer team" to get through this experience. They consider themselves blessed that people from as far as Japan, South America and Europe are praying for Kaitlyn, despite not knowing her personally.

"Not to sound too weird, but God is in that room," he said. "He's there with her. I know it because I see how people change when they walk through the door. The fear and worry leave their faces and they love, they care, they smile."

Kaitlyn's 22-year-old brother, Ian, who believes that worrying is not the answer, says his sister is the type of person who can get through something like this.

Every time she opens her eyes, although groggy because of the sedatives needed for daily skin care, Kaitlyn reminds her family that she loves them.

"Because of Katie's amazing attitude, I have been able to handle this much more easily than I would have imagined I could," Kathleen said. "I've seen her strength multiplied way beyond what I knew of her strength in the past, and it has been inspiring."

Don, who by his own admission is a "suit-and-tie guy by day," joined some of Kaitlyn's friends and had her name tattooed on his left wrist. When his daughter discovered the mark, she proclaimed, "Holy ... " — a reaction no different, Don said, from what he was used to hearing before she fell ill.

"I overheard her telling one of the nurses, 'It'll be OK, don't worry. This is going to be over and I'm going to be out of here and doing OK,'" he said, adding that the nurse was in tears. "It's incredible."


Caring for Katie

Thought of by her friends as passionate, tenacious and positive, Kaitlyn has amassed a support system far beyond hospital walls.

A friend of Ian's, Mark Daniel Mayer, 24, of Huntington Beach, has plugged a keyboard into a street vendor's power strip across Starbucks on Main Street. He spent several hours during the past two weekends playing original music and selling $10 CDs to raise money for the family.

"I was thinking of ways to help," he said. "I figured, 'Hey, why not go out and play the piano?' because I know it'll make some money. We've all got to do something, right?"

While doctors anticipate that Kaitlyn will remain hospitalized for two months more, Don says that six months to a year at Downey-based Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center also await her.

The family might have to move out of their two-story home or, at the very least, remodel it. The bedrooms are on the upper floor and the doors are not wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through, he said.

While insurance has taken care of the hefty medical bills thus far, Kaitlyn's friends created a donation page and Facebook account titled Caring for Katie to raise awareness and set up a venue for people to contribute to the imminent expenses for rehab, a wheelchair and prosthetics.

Recounting the last manicure and pedicure they got together, Kidd, 22, of Newport Beach, said that she and Kaitlyn often talked about living together.

"We're not changing any of our plans," she said. "It would be an honor to wash her hair every day for the rest of her life."

Kidd also masterminded pink wrist bands with Kaitlyn's name printed on them, which are being sold for $5 a piece.

"There's such peace surrounding all of us on Ground Zero of this incident," she said. "It's like she can handle it. If there's anyone who could, it's her. When I visit her, I say, 'Kaitlyn, this is the fight of your life. This is what you've been training for.'"


Twitter: @RMahbubani

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World