School bus parade welcomes home Wyoming COVID-19 survivor

By Cary Littlejohn, Associated Press

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Sometimes simple everyday gestures, like a wave or the honk of a horn, take on a world of importance and cease to be simple everyday gestures.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on a gray, sunless Wednesday with the wind blowing more than 20 mph, roughly 70 members of the Campbell County School District transportation department spread across more than 40 buses and district vehicles paraded past Vicki Wood’s house to tell her they love her.

Wood, 71, a longtime district transportation employee who retired in 2018, had gotten home the day before from Billings, where she’d spent 54 days in the hospital with COVID-19 after being airlifted there Nov. 7, the Gillette News Record reported.

She was bundled in a coat, stocking hat, gloves and a face mask and sat on her porch in a wheelchair covered by lap blankets to receive the long line of buses. It was a secret up until the moment her family decked Wood out in her winter gear and insisted on some fresh air.

When the first buses rolled into view and made the sweeping left turn onto her street, Wood was overwhelmed.

“Oh my God,” she cried, burying her face in her gloved hands.

Then she waved like a reigning queen as her subjects came to pay their respects. There were signs pinned to the buses and their horns blared. Some drivers opened their doors to shout their well wishes, and others had people hanging from windows to wave and shout.

Janice Hauber, who has more than 40 years in the transportation department, made sure she was at the end of the line. She pulled her bus over to the curb, parked, opened the doors and bounded out across the front yard. She stood looking up at Wood through the railings on her porch.

“I didn’t want to just drive by without speaking to her,” Hauber said. “I really wanted to hug her. I knew that the other buses were coming back by, so I know I didn’t have time. But holding her hand and talking to her and seeing her smile was good. It was awesome.”

That homecoming parade didn’t just touch Wood and her family, but her transportation department family as well.

“The COVID thing has changed everyone’s job,” Hauber said. “Our jobs have been a lot harder. This was a great morale booster for our department to have everyone pull together and do something fun.

“She was very appreciative and loved it and her family loved it. And it made an impact. We needed something like that in our department right now.”

‘One sick lady’

Kari Foster, Wood’s daughter, was standing behind her mother’s wheelchair watching the procession. At one point, a mascara-stained tear track etched its way down her cheek. She dabbed it away gently.

“It was emotional to see that culmination finally come, where we actually brought her home and there was a celebration from the people she’d worked with in the past and that love and adore her,” Foster said.

Tammy Hoffman, another former longtime transportation department employee, is one of those who loves and adores Wood. She came to the parade to visit her friend.

“I hadn’t talked to her,” Hoffman said, her voice cracking. “It makes me cry. I got to hug her and it was just the best hug. I told her we didn’t know if she was going to make it. She was one sick lady.”

The sickness came upon her unbelievably quickly.

“My son, who is an EMT, got a call from my husband,” Wood said. “He said, ‘Your mother is totally unresponsive. She’s not communicating with me at all. Please come over and check her out.’

“He came over, and I wasn’t doing well, so he threw me in his car and took me to the emergency room here. They discovered I had COVID and flew me to Billings.”

There were many sleepless nights for the family, Foster said. On Nov. 11, she got a call from her mother’s doctor at 3 a.m., asking if she was OK with her mother being put on a ventilator.

“This virus has no discretion, no bias, no timing,” Foster said. “It just does what it does. It’s evil. It destroys the body, it eats the muscles, it takes your memory, it takes all your physical functions. It does not care what time of day or night it is.”

Wood was then on a ventilator in a medically induced coma for 21 days. Once the doctors stopped the paralytics and sedatives, it took days, up to five or six, for Wood to open her eyes and respond.

“It was horrible,” Foster said about the wait.

That was the most stressful time for the family, and Wood’s prognosis wasn’t good.

“It was Thanksgiving day or that night, the doctor called and told me we needed to make end-of-life preparations and that she was probably not going to make it,” Foster said, her voice strained as she fought back tears. “That was very scary.”

About four days later, Foster said a night nurse encouraged them to talk to Wood.

“He was so sweet,” Foster said. “He said, ‘I will take my phone into the room and put it on speaker and please talk to your mom to see if she responds to your voice.’”

It worked. Wood opened her eyes and that marked a turning point.

Weeks of intermediate care, occupational therapy and physical therapy would be needed to relearn basic skills like sitting up, swallowing and walking. Those therapies will continue twice a week now that she’s home. But at least she’s home.

“When I got ready to leave the hospital, they said, ‘You don’t even have a crackle in your lungs,’” Wood said. “And I said, ‘Thank God’ because I prayed so hard and I had so many prayers from so many people to get me through. Every time I had to do a task at intermediate care, I would say, ‘Come on angels, you gotta help me get through this.’

“And I would do it. That’s how I was able to come home.”

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