On July 13, 2016, Ilysa Winick was living the life she had both dreamed of and worked so hard to get. The mom of two and entrepreneur had just spent the previous weekend celebrating her 42nd birthday and was looking forward to an upcoming family vacation.
“It was a really full life, and I think we were cognizant of that then and had perspective on that,” Ilysa tells PEOPLE. “We were just a happy, young family.”
But around 2 p.m. on that summer day, Ilysa — who had woken up feeling achy and tired at her New York City apartment — started to feel like “my hands and feet were on fire,” she says, adding that she couldn’t walk and was in excruciating pain.
After her husband Steve rushed her to the hospital, things for the Winick family would never be the same. At the emergency room, tests revealed that she had a near-fatal blood infection. Doctors immediately put her in a medically induced coma.
“There are no words to describe that feeling when someone that you love, all of a sudden, is taken,” says Steve, 44. “It’s not even on the radar. You’re not at that part of your life. You’re not thinking about that, and all of a sudden, it’s like she might never get out of here? Where did this come from?”
Over the two next weeks, Steve had to make decisions that he never fathomed would ever come up in his lifetime. Ilysa’s condition eventually led to the amputation of her feet and hands, and left her in desperate need of a new kidney. The frightening infection, which doctors still don’t know how she contracted, caused her body to go into septic shock, shutting down all of her vital organs.
She could only do so much on dialysis, a grueling five-day-a week process she had to endure until she had a kidney transplant. She tried to rebuild her life and relearned how to do everything from eat and walk with the help of her state-of-the-art prosthetics.
“It eats up all of your time,” she says. “It makes you tired and sick.”
Adds Steve: “Learning this new life, and even just navigating her through the hospital was an enormous task.”
A Life-Saving Gift
Over the next three months, Ilysa was at Columbia Presbyterian hospital with family and friends by her side. The devoted mom, who says she’s always been a “very type A” and “fiercely independent woman,” had to learn to be vulnerable and comfortable leaning on those closest to her.
To read more about Ilysa and Catriona’s story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on…