Everyone sees the statics and charts on the COVID-19 virus and why not, it’s getting wall to wall coverage on all the networks and cable news outlets.
For the most part we in Southwest Oklahoma haven’t really had a name to put with that virus, so it makes it feel somewhat remote compared to what’s happened in say New York or New Jersey.
Sure, we’ve all watched the local numbers slowly rise but it still remained a remote chance that somebody we knew would be affected.
But a few weeks ago, I was hit with reality, somebody I’ve known for nearly 50 years was fighting for her life against this virus.
When I put the face of Shirley Ahlschlager on this virus, it brought the impact home like a jackhammer. Shirley is the wife of former Lawton High School football and baseball coach Derald Ahlschlager, a man I spent countless hours with during football and baseball seasons while he was leading the Wolverines.
As his wife’s fight against the virus passes the two-month mark, the veteran coach wanted to let Southwest Oklahomans know that this is serious, very serious.
“I don’t think people have the real picture of this virus, there are a lot of misconceptions,” Derald said. “I look around and don’t see many people wearing masks. I just want to go tell them that they could be spreading the virus and not know it. This virus can’t be overlooked, it shows no mercy on anyone.”
The worst part of this virus is the ease at which it spreads from person to person.
“We think she was exposed to it at church because from what I’ve learned, at least five people we know from church have come down with it,” Ahlschlager said. “I never showed any symptoms of the virus but I had to stay quarantined for 15 days. I had to take my temperature in the morning when I woke up and then at night.”
Ahlschlager hasn’t seen his wife since she was admitted to Comanche Memorial Hospital and because of the restrictions, he and her two daughters struggle to cope with the separation of not being there to help.
“We sit around and try to think of things we could do but since there are few medicines that work, we’re just counting the days,” he said. “Until we get some type of therapy and a vaccine, we’re going to have to be very careful.”
For the past 50 days the family has been limited to calling the ICU nurses at Comanche County Memorial Hospital and getting updates in that manner.
“Both of my daughters have been calling, usually one in the morning and one at night and the staff at Memorial has been just amazing,” Ahlschlager said. “Dr. (Tim) Trotter is heading that unit and he’s a Duke grad who really knows his stuff.”
Daughter Dawn Rinaldi, who lives in Orange County, Calif., with husband Angelo, says the staff at Memorial has been amazing as well and it’s made the tough experience a little easier.
“We called them twice a day and they always spent as much time with us as we needed to answer questions,” Rinaldi said. “Then they got an iPad in the room and they’ve allowed us some FaceTime just to see mom’s face and let us talk to her.”
Daughter Kristin Burton and husband Matt are much closer in Edmond, but she too is using the phone to get information and it’s been hard on her and her two daughters, Claire, a sophomore in college, and Kate, a sophomore in high school.
“The people at Memorial have really been compassionate,” Burton said. “They always answer our questions. Since we can’t be there with her, we also get some FaceTime and it’s comforting to see her and the room.”
The family has grown more hopeful in recent days as Shirley has now tested negative twice in a 24-hour period, allowing her to be moved to a long-term acute care hospital in Oklahoma City.
“She was transferred Tuesday to that hospital and we’re hoping that they can continue to wean her off the ventilator,” Ahlschlager said. “It’s one of the premier hospitals of that type in Oklahoma and we’re happy that she’s making some progress.”
In fact, that facility has already made amazing progress on Shirley.
She underwent a tracheostomy Thursday morning, which is a much more efficient way to provide oxygen to her lungs and the staff has already started weaning her off the ventilator.
“Yesterday (Friday) she breathed on her own for an hour with good results,” Derald said.
While she can’t yet have visitors because of the virus rules, she does have a large window in her room.
Friday standing in front of that window was daughter Kristin who was talking with her dad on the phone. When a nurse came into the room, Shirley opened her eyes for the first time and made eye contact with her youngest daughter.
Shirley smiled and tears rolled down her cheeks.
“What a joyful sight that must have been,” Derald said. “I know it certainly sounded happy on my end of the phone.”
The great news for this family gives them hope that this special wife, mom, grandmother and educator will soon be rejoining the family.
Ahlschlager said that his wife is a special person who has her priorities in order.
“She raised the girls and did a wonderful job,” he said. “Her parents – the Hankins — were outstanding people. Her dad worked at American National Bank and her mom started out as a cook at Lawton High but went back to college and eventually started teaching at LHS.”
Following in mom’s footsteps, Shirley started out at Edison Elementary School and eventually moved to MacArthur Junior High where she taught English and Art for the rest of her career with Lawton Public Schools.
And Shirley hadn’t stopped wanting to learn, auditing art classes at Cameron in recent years and producing some nice family heirlooms.
While she loved teaching, she put her faith right up there on the same plateau.
“Shirley is a great Christian and she never had any doubt in her faith,” Derald said. “I think that we’ve all arrived at that point, that we just have to have faith that everything is going to work out. I know I have more faith now than I had before.
“I remember reading one time that faith is not about everything turning out OK. Faith is about everything being OK no matter how it turns out.”
Daughter Kristin says her mom is a “teacher at heart and she found a way to get things done and always do things the right way.
“Mom taught us so much, what love and faith were all about,” Kristin said. “She always shares her faith and she’s always worried about others.”
Indeed, that was the case when Shirley came off the ventilator for a couple of days earlier in her treatment, she swung her legs off the bed and said it was time to go to church. She was also asking about a friend who was already home after catching the virus.
“She was asking about her friends,” Kristin said. “Right before she tested positive, she hosted a Quest for Learning group at her house and even though she had just come off all those drugs and probably had ICU delirium, she was alert enough to ask if any of those ladies had gotten the virus from her.
“That is our mom, always worried about others.”
Daughter Dawn says their experience with COVID-19 has changed their way of thinking.
“I’m like dad, I see people out here in California without masks and it makes me mad,” Dawn said. “They used to have signs at places that said, ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service. Now they need to say, no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.”
Education was so important in the Ahlschlager family that Dawn didn’t even think of other options.
“Mom always stressed education and in my senior year of high school I asked one of my friends what college they were going to attend and they said they weren’t,” Dawn said. “I said, what do you mean you’re not going to college? We just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Dawn took mom’s advice and wound up with a degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Baylor University.
While education was very important, faith was always on her mom’s mind.
“I remember when we would go on trips, she would check the schedule of the church services in the towns we were staying in and she would take us to church,” Dawn said. “She loves Jesus and her actions follow that path.
“Mom also tried to make sure we always had something to do but we always knew that Friday was football night; we always attended dad’s home games. We also learned at an early age that if they won, everything was OK, but if they lost, we learned to be quiet.”
During those years Ahlschlager’s teams seldom lost, including running the table and winning the state title in 1987 with four NCAA Division I signees on the roster. One of those, Will Shields, is now in the NFL Hall of Fame.
“One thing I always liked about the football games was that after they were over dad would have his players take a knee and pray,” Dawn said. “I don’t think many teams do that these days.”
And even though Dawn lived thousands of miles away, her mom made a point of being on the West Coast every couple of months to see her grandkids participate in sports or school programs.
One of Dawn’s best lessons came from mom at an early age.
“I remember mom telling me if I ever had any trouble with a fellow student or friend, that remember to look at them like a beautiful flower that just hadn’t bloomed. She told me that until that flower blooms you can’t see the beauty in it and it’s the same way with people.
“She was always so forgiving. I know some of my friends out here tell me the same thing, that I’m so forgiving but unless you’re perfect you will make mistakes and we know nobody is perfect.”
Dawn says that while the battle has been long and fraught with twists and turns, she has hope for a good outcome.
“Mom has toughness, too, just like dad,” Dawn said. “She’s still alive and fighting because God still has some purpose left for her on this earth.”
Derald said the worst part has been the waiting.
“You feel so hopeless because you can’t be there with her, but that’s to protect us,” he said. “It’s hard to accept and it gets lonely but you have to keep going. We will have been married 51 years in August and I’m just praying that we will get to celebrate it together.”
After the positive signs in recent days, the chances of that happening have greatly improved and is giving this special family the hope that they’ve been praying for over the past two months.