(WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.) — A Purdue University sophomore is recovering from a near-fatal onslaught of infections that started with an end-of-term bout of mono.
“I had no idea I was that sick,” said Rebeka Kasper, 20, her voice still raspy from 21 days spent on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of a northwest Indiana hospital.
Kasper had been refereeing a volleyball game at Purdue when her chest began to ache. The next day, doctors diagnosed her with mononucleosis — a viral infection common among university students.
“My friends who had mono before said, ‘Oh, this is normal,'” Kasper told ABC News. “But after a week I thought, ‘Shouldn’t I be getting better?'”
Instead, Kasper felt progressively worse. Busy battling mono, her immune system could not fend off two rare strains of streptococcus that swiftly invaded her body and landed her in toxic shock. Her family rushed her to the local emergency room, where she was quickly transferred to intensive care.
“There were multiple times during her admission that we thought she might die,” Dr. Matthew Meyer at Franciscan St. Margaret Health said.
Both Kasper’s lungs collapsed from necrotizing pneumonia — a severe form of the respiratory condition that literally liquefies the lung tissue. Her kidneys also failed, so she relied on a dialysis machine to filter her blood. She even showed signs of heart failure.
“In a way, it was kind of a perfect storm,” said Meyer, describing the unlikely combination of infections.
While machines kept Kasper alive, antibiotics slowly cleared the infections from her body. And for three weeks, her parents slept in the hospital waiting room hoping for good news.
“It was so scary,” said her mom, Kathy. “But there was no doubt in my mind that she was going to be fine.”
For Kasper’s twin, Aly, the thought of losing her sister was unbearable. She even felt the pain of her twin’s failing heart and lungs, she said.
“I woke up clutching my heart when her blood pressure dropped, and I started to hyperventilate before her lung collapsed,” she said. “If she cries, I cry. It’s always been like that. This just took it to a new extreme.”
As Kasper’s organs started to work on their own again, the doctors awoke her from two weeks of sedative-induced slumber.
“I thought everything I dreamt was real,” said Kasper. “In one dream, I got a dog, so I was asking where my puppy was. My family thought I was crazy.”
A week before Christmas, Kasper’s doctors said she could go home.
“She was my Christmas miracle,” said Aly Kasper, who frantically decorated the house for her sister’s return.
In addition to the two weeks she can’t remember, Kasper lost 20 pounds — weight the 5-foot-9 Purdue equestrian hopes to gain back through physiotherapy and a few more weeks of family meals.
“I kind of want my curves back,” she said. “I have no butt muscles, so it hurts to sit!”
Because she missed Thanksgiving, her family made her a special turkey dinner on Christmas Eve before a ham dinner on Christmas Day.
“They’re amazing,” said Kasper of her family. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”
“The doctor said if waited another day we wouldn’t have her,” said Kathy Kasper. “For the rest of her life, if she sneezes, I’m going to have her at the doctor’s office.”
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio