The grim news we are hearing daily about the COVID-19 pandemic has brought back painful memories for Audrey Leishman.
Five years ago, she was in a Virginia Beach, Virginia, hospital fighting for her life. In addition to sepsis and toxic shock syndrome, she had acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), the same thing that has proven so deadly to countless coronavirus patients across the world.
“ARDS is the worst thing I have ever gone through,” she said recently. “It felt like I was drowning.”
“It was the worst time of her life,” Audrey’s husband Marc echoed. “It was the worst time in my life, too. I didn't even have it.”
Related: For more on how players are giving back, visit PGATOUR.COM/IMPACT
Like so many of the COVID-19 patients with ARDS, Audrey was put on a ventilator for five days. The doctors told Marc that his wife had just a 5 percent chance of survival, and the couple said they loved each other for what might have been one last time.
But Audrey fought. So did her doctors and nurses.
And they saved her life.
So, when the COVID-19 pandemic began invading the United States, Audrey and Marc, the five-time PGA TOUR champion, knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to find a way to help the emergency room and ICU staffs in hospitals near their Virginia Beach home who were on the front lines every day.
“With our personal experience of me getting sick, we realized how hard these doctors, nurses, the support staff, respiratory therapists, how hard they all work to keep patients alive,” Audrey explained. “I wouldn't be here without them, and so we wanted to support them.”
But how? Audrey texted the pulmonologist who she says saved her life, as well as one of the physician’s assistants on her case. She also contacted some of her friends who are nurses. What did they need? How could the Leishman’s aptly named Begin Again Foundation make a difference?
While the lack of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers is, she said, “literally keeping me awake at night,” she knew that was too vast a problem to tackle. Other friends simply told her to pray for them. Her response? “Absolutely, but I want to do more than that.”
Someone mentioned that restaurants were afraid to deliver food to the hospitals, and suddenly the Leishmans had an idea. They have lots of friends in the hospitality industry, people who have donated food and other services for the Begin Again Foundation’s celebrity golf classic over the last four years.
With restaurants closed to in-house dining and able only to offer takeout in these days of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, those businesses were suffering, too. Why not help them by buying meals that might allow the owners to pay employees for a little bit longer, then having them delivered to different hospitals?
“It just seemed like a really natural fit,” Marc said. “With what happened to Audrey … we know how, on a normal day, we know how hard the medical staff work. And I mean when something like this is going on and it's got to be, I don't want to say tenfold, but more than that, like 100 times harder. They've got so much more going on, and a lot of them aren't getting home to see their family because they might be infected. So, it's just a huge burden on them.
“And then the restaurants having to be closed for eating, we want to keep them employed. And I know four meals for just us ... it'll make a little difference, but not a huge difference. … I don't know how many meals they're buying, but 60 or 80, or whatever it is. If we buy that many, that could make a difference to that restaurant, possibly staying open or not.
“We're just trying to help in any way we can.”The Leishman family at home. (Courtesy of the Leishmans)
The first hospital the Begin Again Foundation served – quite literally, and quite fittingly – was the Sentara Princess Anne, which is where Audrey got her second chance at life.
And the couple is in it for the long term, too, sending meals to a different hospital each week, because they know all too well that defeating COVID-19 is not going to happen quickly; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“One thing I have seen is that a lot of people offer to help right in the beginning,” Audrey said. “That just comes to happen in any kind of crisis. I still want to be there when it's getting harder for people to help. ... Especially in a situation like this as time goes on and people are out of work for longer, it may be harder and harder to do so.
“We'd like to keep doing this for as long as we can.”
That’s not all Audrey and Marc are doing, either.
In partnership with the Patient Advocate Foundation, the Begin Again Foundation, is also giving out 10 $1,000 grants per month to survivors of ARDS, sepsis or toxic shock syndrome. These LEISHLines can be used to help with uninsured expenses like rent, utilities, food, lodging and transportation.
And recently, the Foundation placed an order for 1,000 cloth masks to be delivered to grocery stores in Virginia Beach to protect the cashiers and stock clerks who work there. A Masters flag signed by Tiger Woods will be auctioned off to support those efforts.
Marc and Audrey have been keeping busy at home, too. They have two sons and a daughter, aged 2 to 8, who miss their friends. FaceTime calls help, though, and there is plenty of schoolwork now that Mom and Dad are doubling as teachers for the foreseeable future.
Marc is quick to point out that his specialty is the physical education part. He’ll leave the math and English lessons to his wife.
“I’m helping Harvey, he's only in second grade and there's a few things I'm like, dude, I don't know how to do this,” Marc said with a chuckle. “… They're doing addition and subtraction a different way now. So, I don't know how to do that. There's a lot of things I can help with, but there's a lot that I can't as well.”
He can help Harvey with chipping and putting, though, at the short game area in the backyard. And Ollie, who’s 6, has taken up Taekwondo and kick-boxing – and his father has a shiner to show for that after an accidental headbutt.
The family lives on a golf course that is closed right now so there have been field trips, of sorts, to fish and look for frogs and tadpoles. Now that the weather is getting warmer the pool in the backyard is getting some use, and Marc has also taught the kids how to build fires and cook smores.
Golf has been put on the back burner. Leishman, who won the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year, said it just doesn’t feel right. “Once the weather gets good and everyone is allowed out there again and things are sort of starting to turn for the better,” he said “I think that's when I'll start to get back into it. …
“A lot of tournaments this time of year that I really enjoy, and to be missing them is tough. But again, the family times, they're positive.”
And so is the work of the Leishman’s Begin Again Foundation.