Eric Espinal, the chest surgeon who cared for her, gives credit to the Akron Marathon for saving Stephanie Leonardi’s life.
Holly Meyer, a nurse at Western Reserve Hospital, was astounded that a healthy 30-year-old woman could be so humbled by illness.
The nurse watched Leonardi slip into a comalike state in the first week of February. As tubes nourished her body, 100 visitors fed Leonardi’s soul with prayer, some sleeping beside her every night of the monthlong fight.
Leonardi thanks God for allowing the Akron Marathon to prepare her for the fight of her life. A runner, she was a “sleeping baby” during her bout with double pneumonia, also known as walking pneumonia.
In her helpless state, she said she felt the love of friends and family. But she owes her life to something more grand than anything in this world.
“We think we have control sometimes. That’s not the case,” Leonardi said. “I get the awareness that life is short. I see people and they don’t get it.”
She’s regained much of the 30 pounds she shed in 21 days at the hospital. A healthy tan covers the scar on her neck where a tracheotomy tube kept air flowing to her saturated lungs.
Leonardi, an art teacher at Bettes Elementary and Garfield High School, celebrates her 31st birthday Saturday by running the last 5.5 miles of the Akron Marathon with her relay team, “Jesus Loves Akron.”
She still doesn’t know why she decided at the age of 30 last year to run her first marathon. But she did, raising funds for her church, The Front Porch at South Street Ministries.
Months after the marathon, she was a healthy woman, looking forward to running again. She came down with the flu and walked out of the emergency room at Western Reserve Hospital on Feb. 1 with antibiotics.
She was told to come back three days later after a routine phone call by hospital staff determined that her health had declined.
She walked back into the hospital “honoring God with every breath.” Then she fell asleep and every breath became “not giving up.”
Her raspy voice is the last physical vestige of a long recovery. It reminds her that she needs to rest. She can no longer operate on three to four hours of sleep.
“What I did for the last six months is rest, for the first time in my life,” she said.
Emotionally, she’s still recovering. She keeps close a registry book signed by friends and family who visited her during the hospital stay.
Get-well cards, balloons and Valentine’s Day wishes from her students decorated her room at Western Reserve Hospital the entire month of February. The hospital allows visitors in the Intensive Care Unit but had to limit the number of friends to 30 a day.
“It’s very humbling,” Leonardi said, leafing through the visitor registry. “I’ve never cried so much tears from so much goodness.”
Leonardi’s near-death experience may not have changed her as much as those who prayed and cared for her.
“I cry every time I talk about it. It was really the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, watching my daughter suffer,” said Tami Leonardi.
After regaining consciousness, Stephanie Leonardi vowed to be a better friend.
In many ways, she’s also vowed to not change. She’ll continue to live her life the way she always has — to the fullest.
“It really hasn’t changed her much. Her outlook was the same. It maybe made it stronger,” said her mother, who can’t say the same for herself. “The pride and joy I have for my daughter is just overwhelming. I strive to be like her.... She inspires me to be better without even knowing it.”
Stephanie Leonardi was sedated during treatment to allow her body to stave off the septic shock that attacked her organs. Periodically, doctors would take her off of the sedatives to ensure that her deep slumber was neither permanent nor causing neurological damage.
Meyer remembers a 24-hour period when they couldn’t tell. The nurse checked on Leonardi ever two hours, coaxing a response.
“Leo. Leo, will you wake up,” Meyer remembered, using the nickname of a woman she had never talked to. “[Then] her eyes fluttered. You could tell she was just trying to smile.”
Meyer, who plans to run a half-marathon Saturday, has been inspired by the perseverance of her fragile patient.
“She has such a determined spirit. I think she just wanted to be herself again,” Meyer said of the impeccable recovery. “A huge part of her is being a runner and being in shape. I don’t think she wanted that illness to defeat her.”
It wasn’t until Leonardi took her first steps, that Meyer said she truly witnessed her strength.
“ ‘I’m gonna keep going. I need to keep walking,’ ” Meyer remembers Leonardi saying as she pushed a walker down the hallway. “I remember her being so out of breath. But she just kept on going. That was awesome to see.”
Leonardi illustrated that strong will in the winning poster used to promote the Akron Marathon this year. “Let us run with perseverance the race set out for us!” is the phrase inscribed on her poster.
“Live Fresh” is her motto. The phrase is tattooed inside her lower lip and branded on a multicolored rubber bracelet on her wrist.
Her short black hair twirls into a peak. A constant smile slips out the right side of her mouth. She dresses in vibrant colors that match her tested and unflinching spirit.
“Most people that this happens to live differently,” she figures. “I was already living it.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.