Georgia teacher faces long road back from coronavirus

When Yolanda Lawrence of Union City, Georgia, first contracted COVID-19 back in March of 2020, like most people, she did not know a lot about this virus, or what it could do. 

The 47-year-old second grade teacher never imagined then she would be four months down the road, still trying to come back from this virus.

Lawrence, is married with a 5-year-old daughter, remembers little of the early days of her COVID-19 battle.

She recalls the nagging dry cough that caused her to pass out while walking to the kitchen, and the stubborn fever Tylenol could not bring down.

Lawrence knows she her husband drove her to their local emergency department twice, the second time critically-ill.

Yet, Lawrence has almost no memory of the 17 days she spent in Piedmont Fayette Hospital's ICU, in a medically-induced coma, a ventilator breathing for her.

When she woke up, a staff member asked her if she knew what day it was.

"I remember saying 'March,'" Lawrence says.  "She smiled, and she was rubbing me on my back, and she was, like, ‘Yolanda, it’s April.” And I’m like, “April!”

She has spent two and half weeks positioned face-down in an ICU bed, a technique known as "proning," designed to help critically-ill COVID-19 patients breathe better on a ventilator.

Her body felt sore and weak, and her entire right side slumped like she had experienced a stroke.

"It's like, 'I can’t move,'" she remembers thinking.  "It really takes your body through hell."

Too weak and unstable to sit up or stand, and unable to lift her right arm, after 5 weeks in the ICU, Lawrence was transferred to Encompass, a rehabilitation hospital, where Gary Baker is lead occupational therapist

"This is not just a breathing disorder," Baker says.  "These people are immobilized for weeks. And, trying to move again is really hard."

Lawrence had to start over, re-learning basic skills that had once been automatic and effortless.

"Yolanda couldn't dress herself, couldn't stand without assistance," Baker says.  "So, we're getting those people from the hospital. They can't stay there. Once they're medically stable they have to go somewhere, and Encompass Rehab, that's what we do: you come to us because you can't go home."

For an intense 2 weeks, Lawrence had to relearn everything.

She worked for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, pushing through physical, occupational and speech therapy.

"It is such a humbling experience when you can’t go to the bathroom without getting assistance," she says.

Baker says people may not realize how profoundly this virus, and the intensive care needed to survive it, can affect some survivors.

"Patients who have COVID and have pneumonia and are hypoxic, or have lack of oxygen, and they end up on the trach and vent, there is damage that is done in the brain," he says. "Giving them 2 weeks 3 weeks (in rehab), we're seeing positive outcomes, but we're not fixing them 100%."

Lawrence made steady progress.

"I have a 5-year old to fight for, so that gives me even more to fight for," she says.

Today, back home in Union City, she is walking with the help of a cane.

"I’m no longer on the walker," she says. "I’m able to lift my right arm a little.  You see the difference?" 

She holds her right arm up in the air, in a kind of victory signs.

Yolanda Lawrence is finally putting this virus behind her.

"I read yesterday, where it said, "If you don’t want to wear a mask, try being on a ventilator," she says. " Because it’s real, it’s out there."