McKenzee Webster was 25 years old and just starting a new job in Anniston in March when she first began to feel ill. Before her belongings were even unpacked, she'd been to an urgent care center, but didn't feel better.
“A few days later, she called her mom and told her mom she couldn't breathe,” said her grandmother, Jean Webster.
By April 1, family members say, Webster was on a ventilator in the coronavirus unit of Regional Medical Center in Anniston. She didn't emerge from the hospital until Friday, when doctors and nurses sent up a cheer as Webster was rolled out of RMC. She was still on a stretcher.
“If I could give anybody any advice: go to the hospital, wear your mask, stay inside,” a tearful Webster said. "And keep God first. I wouldn't have made it without God."
Perhaps it was just the emotion of the moment, but Webster spoke with labored breath, like a jogger who has just completed a run. She has been free of the virus since at least Tuesday — she was moved out of the coronavirus ward and to another part of the hospital after testing negative — but she's not ready to go home yet. She left RMC in an ambulance, headed for Encompass, a Gadsden rehabilitation center.
She was on a ventilator for 31 days, hospital officials say.
She still has numbness in her fingers from the medication, said Webster's aunt, Dawn Keels. "That should wear itself off. She has to get her physical health back in the sense of being able to walk," Keels said.
Webster is the kind of coronavirus patient many people may believe doesn't exist. A young professional woman — family members say she came to Anniston to work as an engineer for Alabama Power — stricken with a very serious case of COVID-19.
More than 11,000 Alabamians have had confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Friday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. One in eight of them, like McKenzee Webster, have spent time in the hospital. But of the 473 who died of the virus, eight in 10 were over 65 and a majority were male.
Whittany Champion, a nurse in the coronavirus unit, acknowledged that she worried at one point that Webster wouldn't make it. Like Webster, Champion is 25 years old. She said she got to know Webster when she was first admitted to the hospital, before she went on the ventilator.
“I sat in the room and talked to her because she was scared,” Champion said.
Asked what it's like to be on a ventilator for a calendar month, Webster said she doesn't recall much.
“I don't remember a lot, and I don't want to,” she said. “I just want to look ahead to my recovery.”
The stay was tough on Webster's relatives, too. Many of them live in Atlanta, but they might as well have been on another planet. The coronavirus unit, equipped with ventilators and negative-pressure rooms to prevent the spread of the virus, is off-limits to visitors.
“She went through it all by herself,” said Jean Webster.
Two people remained in the coronavirus unit Friday. Doctors earlier this week said the unit was down to a single patient — not Webster, who had already been moved to a non-coronavirus ward. That COVID-19 patient was awaiting test results that could come back as early as Saturday.
Hospital staff said there was a second patient in the coronavirus ward as of Friday, someone who was suspected of having the virus and awaiting test results.