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After their 24-year-old daughter died alone in the Peace Corps in 2018, family warns others who prepare to volunteer amid pandemic

By Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Parenting News

CHICAGO - On their daughter's gravestone are her birth date, the day she died and her service in the Peace Corps.

Below these is one word: "Extraordinary."

This is how her parents describe Bernice Heiderman, who died at age 24 in 2018 from undiagnosed malaria while serving in the Peace Corps.

Two years later, as the Peace Corps prepares to send volunteers back into the field amid a global pandemic, her parents want to warn others who might find themselves where Bernice Heiderman did: sick, alone and abroad.

"Right now, I think it is foolhardy and really dangerous for them to be sending people out into parts of the world that we know are very remote," said her mother, Julie Heiderman.

The Inverness, Ill., family says the Peace Corps did not do enough to protect their daughter, who messaged her family about symptoms and sought medical care from the Peace Corps but ended up dying alone from malaria after days lying sick in a hotel room. According to the New York Times, the Peace Corps has been slow to put into place years of recommendations to prevent such deaths of its volunteers.

 

Heiderman died of malaria without ever being tested for it, which could have led to her treatment and recovery. Without a legal route the Heidermans can use to force reforms, their attorney Adam Dinnell said they are preparing to sue for financial damages.

A statement from the Peace Corps says the agency "continues to grieve the tragic loss of volunteer Bernice Heiderman" and notes that the doctor who treated her no longer works there. The agency said it "initiated several steps to further strengthen healthcare for volunteers," without elaborating, and that "the health and safety of our volunteers continues to be the top priority of the agency."

The family wants the Peace Corps to ensure changes, including having more than one doctor present to assess volunteers and improving training of the medical staff.

Bernice Heiderman joined the Peace Corps to be a goodwill ambassador, said her mother. Her daughter, who was athletic and opinionated, hoped to prove that Americans are good people eager to help.

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