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.
While in Chicago, Bernice Heiderman volunteered at the Field Museum, showing children things like dinosaur and mammoth teeth, said her sister, Grace Heiderman. She went to Lollapalooza and worked at Nookie's and Dairy Queen. Her favorite museum was the Chicago History Museum. She loved dining out in Greektown. And she was a huge Cubs fan.
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she got on a plane in 2016 for her Peace Corps assignment in Comoros, an island nation off the coast of Africa.
"She was looking to have something that she'd never experienced before," Grace said.
During her year and a half there, she taught English to junior high students and started a program called the Junior Exploration Club that took children to places they hadn't seen within their island nation, like an animal rescue and the National Museum of Comoros. She taught the kids to sing "Go Cubs Go."
She couldn't easily get Wi-Fi, but she kept her parents updated on her new life. She loved the people and the country; her mother remembers a photo of her sitting on a rock, looking over the ocean, "just glowing."
While celebrating New Year's, she felt nauseous. In the days following, she recounted chills, a headache and dizziness to her worried mother. Although under the care of Peace Corps medical personnel, she was never tested for malaria.
Then, the texts stopped.
The phone rang at home on a Monday morning. When her father, Bill Heiderman, answered, a stranger told her that his daughter had died that morning.
"I literally screamed so loud I lost my hearing," he said.
The Peace Corps has a memorial fund for her that will support projects in Comoros.
Her brother, William Heiderman, had planned to visit during her tour. Instead, her sister went to collect the things from her apartment in Comoros after her death.
Her brother still traveled to spend a week Comoros. He remains in touch with those who helped create her explorer's club. It still exists.
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