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From ventilator to vitality: COVID-19 survivor finally comes home

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Though many of us have moved on from the COVID-19 pandemic, some families are still embroiled in its devastating effects. Cape Town mother Lauri Berman’s family held their breath for the 10 long months that she was in hospital after contracting COVID-19. She spent 172 days in the intensive care unit (ICU), with 150 of those days on a ventilator. Many moments were touch and go.

When Berman finally came off the ventilator, “She couldn’t even move her fingers,” says her sister, Terri Sherman. “She had to learn absolutely everything again.” Her journey has been a rollercoaster ride, from coming off the ventilator to getting out of ICU, which was celebrated by staff, family, and the entire community.

She then spent months in rehab, learning to talk, walk, move, and breathe. In the middle of it all, she had a setback that landed her back in ICU. But a determined spirit, supportive family, and medical miracles got her where she is today. Berman came home at the end of July 2022, almost a year since she contracted COVID-19.

It all began when Berman contracted the virus in August 2021. She had been diagnosed with lymphoma, completed chemotherapy, and was in remission, but on a maintenance dose of chemotherapy. “She landed in hospital with COVID-19 pneumonia,” remembers Sherman. “Ten days later, she came home. But for the next three days, she had fevers, and was re-admitted to hospital. Doctors weren’t entirely sure what was wrong.”

Berman was sent for a routine investigative procedure. Her husband, Barry, and her sister were told they didn’t need to be there. “But early that morning, Barry phoned to say we had to get to the hospital now,” remembers Sherman.

The procedure never happened as all hell broke loose when Berman’s body suddenly became completely unstable. Her oxygen saturation was in the 70s. Soon after, doctors said they would have to ventilate. “There was panic and tears. I remember Barry saying, ‘Come back to us!,’” says Sherman.

What was supposed to be a week on the machine turned into five heart-breaking months, with Berman battering numerous infections. Her young sons weren’t allowed to visit and didn’t see her until her birthday in March 2022, soon after she came off the ventilator.

Berman’s birthday, when she turned 45, was a cause for celebration, and the family went all out with cupcakes for the staff and balloons in the ward. It wasn’t just because she was another year older, but because of a deeply held belief in her family. “My grandfather would say that the most you can love someone is 44,” says Sherman. So we always used to say ‘love you 44’. But then my mother died at 44. We always felt that we had to reach 45. After I turned 44, my husband joked that we should ‘let it go’. But two weeks later, he died suddenly.”

The family has experienced much tragedy. “So when she turned 45, it felt like a miracle,” says Sherman. “I felt like if she just makes it to 45, things will be okay. And truly, things did begin to shift after that.” Miraculously, doctors were able to treat her with a rare drug that may have helped her turn a corner.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Berman says that she used to have a necklace with the number 44, but her husband changed it to 18 – the symbol for chai (life). It’s spiritual and significant shifts like these that made all the difference at the darkest moments. For ten long months, community members said tehillim for Berman. Sherman added more mezuzot to her home, and took to saying the Shema. Berman’s husband laid tefillin every day. Her family knew that she was a strong believer in the spiritual, and did all they could to bring that into the healing process.

As for Berman, she doesn’t remember anything. “It was like I fell asleep and woke up in a new world, with my boys a lot older,” she says. She doesn’t remember any encounters with a different dimension, but once she felt the presence of loved ones she had lost, keeping her safe.

“We had very different experiences,” says Sherman. “I was completely traumatised, and am full of fear.” Ironically, Berman never experienced that trauma, like one early morning when the family were called to the hospital as she was going into cardiac arrest. “We drove not knowing if she was alive. There were countless times that we were told that ‘the next 24 hours are critical’,” remembers Sherman. Many times they were told to expect the worst.

Berman’s experience was more about frustration at things like not being able to talk. For someone who had an active and busy life before, she found depending on others difficult. Now that she has come home, her sister wants to help her, but she wants to do everything herself. She’s still on oxygen and has set herself goals to get off it as soon as possible.

Her time in rehab was challenging but also full of joy. “I loved the exercises and the challenges,” says Berman. In a breathtaking video made by her therapists, titled “The story of a survivor”, we see the progress she made, one step at a time. Her therapists also got her family involved. “One day, they wanted me to step forwards and backwards, but I needed to be supported, so they got Barry to dance with me,” says Berman. “They even played our wedding song.”

It’s medical professionals like these that got Berman and her family over the finish line. When she came out of ICU, her husband thanked “the most dedicated and committed team, fantastic nurses, [and] unbelievable therapists at Cape Town Mediclinic”. The community also played a crucial role, and he thanked everyone from friends to rabbis.

Although the rest of us have left COVID-19 restrictions behind, Berman’s family and friends have to wear masks, sanitise, and take COVID-19 tests, as she is still immune-compromised. Having her home is a dream come true, but it’s not the end of the story. They have had to adapt their house, and she still needs to regain strength and capacity.

After Berman came home, it was finally time for her voice to be heard. Writing to the tehillim group, she said amongst other points, “Through your ongoing prayers, positive energy, and unwavering support, every one of you have helped me on my journey of recovery. I now know that there were many times when the odds were against me, yet you all continued with your prayers and positivity to give me the strength I needed to keep fighting.

“You also gave my family unwavering support. I feel so blessed for this gift of life that I have been given, and want to thank you all. I’ll never forget your support and the power of your prayers. As I keep getting stronger, I know you’re all with me on this ongoing journey.”

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