A year later, WES teacher continues long COVID recovery
Linda Holcomb spent the better part of three decades as a teacher at West Elementary; however, with her long struggle with an extremely severe case of COVID-19 and related complications, it has now been more than a year since she’s set foot in the school.
A former English Language Learner teacher, Holcomb said she misses her students and being at school, but she doesn’t yet know if she will be able to return.
A 1981 graduate of Russellville High School, Holcomb attended the University of North Alabama, returning – when she decided she wanted to teach – for a non-traditional fifth-year program as an alternative method of earning a master’s in elementary education. After that, she began teaching at West, where she remained until she got sick this past year in the middle part of January.
“Linda and I grew up together and lived in the same neighborhood,” said West Elementary Principal Ann Scott. “She’s a huge supporter of the Russellville City Schools, and she has always been very kind to everyone and highly admired by her colleagues. The children have always been enthusiastic about having her work with them because she really cares and makes a big difference in their lives.”
“I haven’t stepped foot in a school building since Jan. 13 of last year,” explained Holcomb. “Teaching is very rewarding, and I certainly miss it. It’s wonderful to see the students go from not really understanding English to being able to read and write well and fit in with other kids.”
She said the past year has been exceptionally trying and upsetting, but the support of friends, family and strangers has been a source of comfort.
“I just wish people would believe that COVID is real and that it’s serious and respect those who have seen firsthand what it can do,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful to still be here, and people have been so good to us.”
Holcomb said she wants to encourage everyone not to wait too long to see a doctor if they’re feeling sick.
“At first, I thought I had a cold or sinus infection or something. If you actually have COVID instead, you could be infecting a whole lot of people in the meantime,” she pointed out. “I was at home about a week before I had to be taken to the ER.
“Everything deteriorated really quickly that day over a three- or four-hour period of time. My oxygen level dropped dangerously low – much lower and I would have passed out – and my time perception was distorted.
“I went to school on a Tuesday and sat in meetings and woke up cold on Wednesday,” said Holcomb. “I started getting ready for school, and I took my temperature, called the school and went to the clinic in Littleville.
“I knew I had COVID within 15 minutes of arriving there. My fever was sky high, and in just a matter of a few days, I wasn’t improving. I had to go to the hospital, and then I was intubated four days later.”
Tested on Wednesday, home for a few days, and then one of her daughters, Torey Behel, had to take her to the emergency room Jan. 26.
She didn’t get to go home until Sept. 17. In total, she was away from home 234 days.
“Due to COVID-19 precautions, I couldn’t stay with her at first,” explained Behel. “That was on a Wednesday, and she texted and talked to me until Saturday, and then I didn’t hear anything for 44 hours, so I walked in that Monday and said I had to see her. Once I met the doctors and nurses caring for her, it removed the majority of my doubt that she could make it. She had three main doctors and three specialists, including Drs. Melson, Ridgeway and Pounders.”
Holcomb’s other daughter, Sara Hill, said it’s difficult to put into words everything they have been through. “I was 28, and thought I was about to lose my mom. I just had to completely trust in God that He would heal her, and He did.”
Behel said since the pulmonologist recommended elective intubation, Holcomb had to be taken from ICU to IVU, a special unit for infectious diseases, and no one was able to be with her while she was there.
“We’re forever appreciative to the staffs at Helen Keller and JW Sommer, as well as Kindred at Home,” Behel said. “I couldn’t possibly name everyone, but they displayed so much care and compassion, always having her best interests at heart.”
“At times, I thought I would get to go home before long, and at other times, I thought I’d never be home again,” said Holcomb. “Pity parties didn’t come very often, but they did happen, and it was incredibly frustrating to go from being active and able to do what I wanted to not even being able to move in bed without help.
“I spent a lot of time in Helen Keller and JW Sommer Rehab. During that period, I was on a ventilator for 125 days, had a trach for 116, a peg tube for 153 days and a chest tube for 54 days. While intubated for 42 days, I wasn’t conscious. I was sedated for 72 days.
“Most people don’t have a COVID visit that long. I broke every record Keller had.”
Because of her prolonged struggle, Holcomb lost so much muscle she couldn’t even sit up in bed without someone supporting her. Although she still can’t walk a long distance, Holcomb has gone from only being to take a few steps to being able to walk around 40-45 feet before having to stop and rest.
“I’ve been on oxygen since January 2020,” said Holcomb, “and I’ve been through a lot over the past year. I have come a long way, but I still have a long way to go.”
“Every time I would ask what day it was, they would tell me Friday, because Friday has always been a happy day. I went a very long time without questioning why they always said Friday.”
Holcomb explained that even when she was alert, she couldn’t really talk while she had the trach. “You’re not supposed to be able to do this, but I did manage talking around it a bit but only in a whisper. You had to really watch me and pay attention to understand.”
She went five months without speaking, and there have been other complications. Holcomb explained that when having a trach put in, it’s necessary to go between the vocal cords – something that causes scarring for a lot of people. She said she had a raspy voice to begin with, and while it’s still more raspy than it was, there have been improvements – though she can’t yell, sing or otherwise get loud.
“I don’t know if I will make a full recovery,” explained Holcomb. “I have Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. This causes my lungs to be hard. In time, flexibility may return, and I might be able to get off of the oxygen.”
Holcomb said doctors learned a lot about COVID while working to help her.
“I had the infusion and lots of medicines and treatments. Some of the things didn’t work for me, and I found out I was allergic to a lot of the drugs. I had hives during a lot of the eight months of the worst of everything.”
While there’s a lot she still can’t do – at least not yet – there’s been plenty to keep her busy, including reading, catching up on television, at-home physical and occupational therapy and spending time with family. Until she can manage on her own again, she is living with one of her two daughters, Behel, and her four kids, ages 4, 5, 8 and 10.
Due to having a severely compromised immune system, Holcomb can’t venture out much, and she skipped the regular family Thanksgiving in favor of an event at home with her grandkids and daughter.
“I can’t take a chance on getting sick again,” explained Holcomb. “Even a cold could land me back in the hospital. When I do go out, I always wear a mask.
“My basic outings have been going to Target once, a chiropractor and a doctor. I watched the Homecoming parade from the car, and I attended a COVID prayer vigil – also watching from the car.”
The efforts she’s making to work toward getting back to normal include therapy for her hands, and, though she’s not where she wants to be yet, she has made progress. “My handwriting is still not great,” explained Holcomb, “but it’s improving. At the beginning of all this, I couldn’t even grip a pencil, and now I can do that, though I can’t open a bottle of water. I have had to re-learn how to walk and how to do other things. I didn’t take a step from around the first of February last year until August third.”
Holcomb said she wouldn’t wish her experience on anyone. “I don’t think anybody’s family and friends should have to go through what mine have, and it’s been no picnic for me, either. It’s been truly awful, but the support and encouragement we have received has been deeply meaningful. We’ve had prayers from as far away as Alaska, Florida, Hawai’i and New York state – both from people we know and people we don’t.”
Although things are uncertain, Holcomb made it clear she isn’t finished working and planning. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to go back to teaching. I have enough years in to retire, but I’ll just have to see how it goes. God has brought me this far, and He’s not done with me yet.”
Missing the independence she once enjoyed, Holcomb said her long-term goal involves a special trip with her family. “As soon as I am able, I want to go with my children to the beach, but I don’t want to go in a wheelchair or on oxygen. I want to be able to walk out on the beach by myself.”
Holcomb said she doesn’t know how long it will take to get to that point. “It might be a year or two or even three. I was told that for every day you’re in bed sick with COVID, it takes four days to recover.
“I lost so much muscle mass and general strength. It’s going to be a long time, but we’re just taking it one day at a time, accomplishing milestones every week.
“I was fighting as hard as I could, and everybody was praying as hard as they could, and I believe that’s why I’m still here,” said Holcomb. “Through it all, I’ve had an unwavering faith that God’s in control, and that went a long way.”