Mom and daughter

Kaitlyn Dobrow, left, and her mother, Kathleen, during Kaitlyn's treatment at UCI Medical Center in Orange. (Courtesy Dobrow family / April 3, 2013)

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.