It’s been an impossible two months for the Alexanders. The family of four, longtime residents of North Long Beach, are a detailed study of the havoc that the COVID-19 virus can wreak on a single household.
Lawrence Alexander went to the hospital in the back of an ambulance more than a month ago–he hasn’t been able to see his wife or children in person since. After weeks on a ventilator with organ failure, he came out of sedation to learn that his mother had perished from the same virus that nearly took his life.
The virus has left Lawrence’s wife, Stacie, alone with their nine and six year old children, struggling to accept that she can’t be with her husband of 13 years, and that she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to again.
“Part of me just wants to storm that hospital and be like, ‘I need to see my husband right now,’” she said. “But I can’t. Every brain cell knows I can’t do that. But in my gut, on a visceral level, I just need to be there for my husband.”
A Ski Trip
Lawrence’s mother, Julia Maye Alexander, went on a ski trip with his sister in early March, two of the almost 700 members of the National Brotherhood Skiers who flew to Idaho’s Sun Valley for the NBS’ Black Summit, the 47th annual gathering of the nation’s largest African-American ski and snowboard association.
The summit has gained national attention after becoming a COVID-19 epicenter, earning a somber writeup in the New Yorker titled “Why an Idaho Ski Destination Has One of the Highest COVID-19 Infection Rates in the Nation.” Lawrence’s mother and sister returned home symptom-free, but carrying the deadly virus.
At the time, Lawrence was beginning his recovery from a pair of knee surgeries, repairing damage from a basketball injury. His mother came to stay at the Alexander family’s house in Long Beach, taking care of her son while he recuperated. A few days later, she was seriously ill and being admitted to a hospital ICU.
At the same time, Lawrence developed a fever. Not wanting to take any chances, Stacie moved into the front of their house, isolating Lawrence from herself as well as their children, Sydney (9 years old) and Marcus (6). The fever didn’t go away.
“Whenever I’ve gotten the flu I’m sick for two days, then I get that big sweat, the fever breaks, and I’m good,” said Lawrence. “This thing was like a jiu jitsu fighter that gets to your back and waits for you to make a mistake. It never gave up. I’m waiting for my body to figure it out but my body couldn’t figure it out.”
After a week of fevers that reached as high as 103 degrees, Lawrence woke up struggling to breathe. Stacie didn’t waste any time, calling 911 immediately.
“The paramedics and firemen arrived in hazmat suits, and I had to stand in the driveway answering questions while they were in the middle of the street,” said Stacie. “They knew what it was right away. They went around the back of the house to take him on a gurney out of our bedroom window so they didn’t have to go to the house.”
They loaded Lawrence into the back of the ambulance and drove away that morning of March 21.
“I was so worried for him but I was also worried about myself,” said Stacie. “His mom was in the hospital–what happens to our kids if I had the virus? If they have to come take me where do the kids go?”
A ‘Living Hell’
Lawrence’s condition quickly deteriorated in the hospital, and within a few days he was in the Intensive Care Unit and on a ventilator. His memories of the last month are hazy, and sound like a nightmare.
“I was in a delusional state,” he said. “People would come in and they’re fully in protective gear except for their goggles. They’d come in, they’d suction my mouth, they’d wipe my face. It happened every day, but I didn’t know why it was happening. It was a living hell–just waking up in the same room, IVs, people coming in but I’m too out of it to understand what they’re trying to explain. It was a nightmare.”
Lawrence was unaware of it at the time, but he’d nearly died. His lungs didn’t make a quick recovery and at the same time his organs began to fail, beginning with his kidneys. For more than two weeks he was fully sedated and his life hung in the balance.
Stacie restrained herself from driving to the hospital, occupying herself with making sure her kids were fed, and that the family was updated on Lawrence’s condition. She’s also the vice principal of Cabrillo High, and was doing what she could to assist with the school’s transition to digital learning.
“Don’t ask me as part of this interview how homeschooling is going with our kids,” she said. “I suck as a teacher. I can run a high school, but not teach the kids at the same time–there was plenty of YouTube involved.”
Lawrence’s condition began to reverse itself after he went on dialysis. Finally, after 18 days of sedation, he began to come out of it and was removed from the ventilator. He recalls the first ice chips he was allowed to have as a rapturous experience.
“I had a nurse turn God into ice chips,” he said. “I’ve had a good life, I’ve had kobe beef, wagyu beef, great cigars, my mom’s banana pudding. That ice trickling down my throat was divine.”
Winning the Lottery, Losing Everything
Shortly after regaining consciousness and the ability to speak, Lawrence asked for his phone. On FaceTime, Stacie and his sisters told him he’d had a birthday, turning 51 while sedated, and they tried to explain how much of the world had changed. He had virtually no memory of what had happened to him.
“His first question when we talked was, ‘Why the f— am I in the hospital right now?’’ said Stacie.
As he regained his mind, Lawrence’s personality came back, too, and soon he was crooning to his family.
“I’m screaming and I’m singing, ‘I’m aliiiiive, I’m aliiiiive,” said Lawrence. Then he asked about his mom. Stacie and his sisters didn’t want to talk about it, but Lawrence said he’d stop cooperating with the nurses unless he got an update.
“So they told me she passed away on April 1st,” he said. “Three days before her 82nd birthday. And my sister’s telling me that because she had COVID she was isolated. So they communicated with her through a tablet, and they watched her die through a tablet. You’re not supposed to watch your family die on an iPad. You’re supposed to hold their hand and be there with them. I felt like I won the lottery and lost it all on the same day.”
Stacie said the medically necessary isolation has been one of the most painful parts of everything her family has gone through.
“In any other circumstance if you have a family member in ICU, someone is there 24 hours a day,” she said. “When someone passes, the family comes together to comfort each other. We couldn’t be with Lawrence’s mother and we couldn’t be with Lawrence. That human connection isn’t possible.”
Uncertainty and Gratitude
At press time, Lawrence was preparing to move to an acute rehab facility to begin the process of regaining the use of his legs. The two knee surgeries coupled with more than a month in a hospital bed have left him unable to stand or walk. Although he’s now testing negative for COVID-19, a number of facilities didn’t want to take the risk of bringing in a COVID patient, making it difficult to find a place for him to rehab his legs.
Because he’s moving to an acute facility, Stacie, Sydney, and Marcus still won’t be able to see him.
“We’re hoping it’s only two or three more weeks,” said Stacie.
In the meantime Lawrence is mourning his mother, and being celebrated as a miracle recovery.
“I was inches away from death and recovered, so nurses keep popping their head in to wave at me,” said Lawrence. “I asked the doctor why they’re doing that and he said, ‘Because they can’t believe you’re alive.’ I put a picture of my mom in the window and said, ‘She’s the reason I’m alive.’”
Stacie continues to put one foot in front of the next as a mother, a wife, and an educator. There’s uncertainty about when they’ll see Lawrence in person again, but gratitude that he’s still alive. She admitted she’s been dismayed at some of the posts she’s seen on social media falsely claiming that the COVID-19 virus is a hoax, or downplaying its threat. The virus that has upended her family’s life has become yet another topic to be polarized and debated.
“It has nothing to do with the media, or politics, or even the president,” she said. “This is a public health crisis that is happening in our city and in our country. My kids lost their grandmother, we haven’t been able to see my husband for more than a month. My sister-in-law lost five people in her group of friends. For me, people who feel they’re inconvenienced because their hair is wild or their nails aren’t done speaks to the level of entitlement we’ve grown accustomed to. If what happened to my family happened to everyone else, nobody would go anywhere.”