It’s been almost a month since Mike Lawrence checked into AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee for what he thought would be quick stay to treat his case of COVID-19.
But 23 days and a collapsed lung later, Lawrence is still finding himself in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. It’s a stay he compared to a lockdown, confined to a 10-by-14-foot room that has nothing but a bed, two chairs and tons of medical equipment.
That’s why it meant so much for Lawrence, the athletic director, softball and boys basketball coach, physical education teacher and guidance counselor at Kankakee Trinity Academy to see more than 100 students from the junior high and high school levels show up outside the hospital Monday to hold a prayer vigil for their beloved teacher and coach.
“I got to get out of my hospital gown, put my sweatpants and a shirt on, sit by the window and turn my phone on so I could hear them, and it means a lot to me and my family,” Lawrence said of the support. “You never know your influence until something really big happens and these kids have been showing up.”
The vigil Monday was the third time the school has sent students to visit Lawrence, oftentimes bringing him signs and cards along with them. Sarah Delgado, an English teacher and Lawrence’s softball assistant, said the support that’s been shown has been out of appreciation for the man she called the school’s lovable grandpa.
“People outside of the building are scared of him because he’s intimidating, he can be rough in sports and wants to win, but when he loves you, he loves on you hard,” Delgado said. “The kids and teachers know coach is always gonna have our backs and he’s gonna support us 100%.”
Lawrence, who is also a youth sports official and the president of the Bradley-Bourbonnais Youth Softball League, has fought a grueling battle with the coronavirus in both a mental and physical sense. Not long after his hospital admittance, Lawrence lost his best friend and longtime umpiring partner, Doug Wellenreiter, to the virus.
As difficult as it was to lose a friend to the same virus that landed him in the ICU, Lawrence said it was Wellenreiter’s widow, Kelly, who helped his Trinity family give him the encouragement he needed to turn the initial corner.
“You just keep thinking you’ve gotta live,” Lawrence said. “[Kelly] called me several times and called my wife and told her, ‘Tell him to fight, we can’t lose our two guys.’
“She’s been getting after me, encouraging me and telling me my friend’s on the other side are cheering for me.”
While he was in good physical spirits upon his entry to the hospital, Lawrence had a scare arise in the day’s following his friend’s death, when he suffered a collapsed lung. Days after surgery to fix his lung, the tube that was inserted into his lung came out, causing another scare and second surgery.
After the second surgery early last week, Lawrence finally started seeing improvement as the weekend came, something Delgado attributes to nearly 100 high schoolers from Trinity showing up to visit.
“It was a very emotional time when we found out [about Lawrence’s collapsed lung],” Delgado said. “I went to [Trinity principal] pastor Brad [Prairie] and said we had to do something; the Lord can pull him through it but he needed to know the community was behind him,” Delgado said. “We threw 100 kids on the busses and coach couldn’t imagine us taking time out of the day to pray for him.
“That touched him and we truly believe it was a turning point in his health.”
The boys basketball team Lawrence coaches has been practicing in preparation for their season that starts next week, as they do not have to keep their season paused since they aren’t members of the Illinois High School Association.
Assistant coach Andy Hansen has been filling in for Lawrence, a transition he said has been smooth due to Lawrence’s ability to run a program. He also said that the team’s support for their coach exemplifies what the program is about.
“We’re a team but we talk all the time about the culture, and within that culture we’re a family and family comes first,” Hansen said. “Coach means a lot to us as a coach but he means even more to us as a person.
“He casts a big shadow but it’s wonderful working in his shadow and the only thing bigger than his shadow is his heart.”
Ben Green is one of nine seniors returning from last year’s team that went 33-4 and has sky-high expectations for this winter. He said the adversity, and in return the support his school is showing for Lawrence, have helped put things in perspective as student-athletes across the state grow frustrated with the status of the sports calendar.
“When I see a coach or player go down to something like this it really puts in perspective why we’re playing and who we’re playing for,” Green said. “It’s not much of a season without coach or one of our players because we’re a family, and when a family member goes down it’s not the same.”
Lawrence hopes to be back home within the next week or so and will be back in action as soon as he can after that. Through suffering some of the worst physical and emotional pain he’s ever felt, through fearing for his life at times, support like that which was shown at Monday’s vigil are why he can’t wait to be back on the sidelines, oxygen tank in stow next to him.
“The kids and coaches at my school, they’ve shown up three different times in big groups like that now and it’s an encouragement,” Lawrence said. “You see that and say, ‘This is why I do what I do.’
“You find that niche ... am I good at [coaching]? I don’t know. But I know why I do what I do.”