Kansas track coach struggling with COVID for months urges vaccination

Tom Lester urges vaccinations after he spends months fighting COVID-19.
Tom Lester urges vaccinations after he spends months fighting COVID-19.(KCTV5)
Published: Dec. 31, 2021 at 11:03 AM CST
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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (KCTV) - A local track coach has been struggling for months with COVID and might need a lung transplant because of it.

Tom Lester was sitting in a recliner in his ex-wife’s Overland Park home Thursday afternoon. As he spoke, a sharp breath that sounded like a hiss punctuated every few words

“I don’t want anybody to go through what I’m going through. It’s, it’s hell,” he said.

Lester has been Blue Springs High School’s assistant boys’ track and field coach for the past five years. He made it through one week as assistant boys’ cross country coach before he went to Lee’s Summit Medical Center in August with trouble breathing.

Within a week, he was in the ICU. He was hospitalized for 48 days. He’s been in rehab and therapy for 70 days and counting.

Lester now has tubes twisted all around him. He can’t go anywhere without oxygen, and even with it, he can’t go far.

“To do the simplest things, to get up to make a peanut butter sandwich, is a struggle,” he described.

A tall guy, his weight before being hospitalized was 215 pounds. He lost 65 pounds after getting blood clots in his lungs, then a collapsed lung.

He moved in with his ex-wife, the mother of his two girls and still a close friend, to help nurse him back to some semblance of health.

“I’ve got to get stronger. I’ve got to eat. Debbie is helping me with that,” he said.

He went to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing. He’d seen the news about the Delta variant of COVID. He thought he should go to the hospital just in case. Still, he figured he wouldn’t be there long.

“I was foolish enough not to get the shot. I didn’t really have a major reason. I just chose not to get it,” he explained.

“It wasn’t that he was opposed to it. He was like, ‘I’ll be fine,’” explained Debbie Mann, his ex-wife.

“I’m pretty healthy for a 57-year-old guy,” he recalled thinking.

That was his reason for skipping it. Now, he takes pleasure in being the reason an old friend took the leap to get vaccinated in October after seeing how Lester was doing.

“It scared the hell out of him. And he and I talked. And the next day he said, ‘Tom, I went and got a shot because of you.’ I was very happy,” he said. “I was happy I influenced one person. That’s a start.”

He notes the trouble with his physical health aren’t confined to him. It impacts others who now need to help care for him, and shuttle him to and from medical appointments. That is his only real time outside Mann’s house.

Mann said it has been a blessing to her and their daughters to care for him after all he’s done for them. It’s their chance to give back.

Lester’s days now are spent mostly in front of the TV, watching anything sports. What keeps him going is the idea of coaching again.

“I want to, even if it’s in a golf cart,” he said.

His coaching life has involved encouraging kids. Now, he’s coaching to a larger audience.

“Let me be the case study in [what happens] not getting the shot. Go get it,” he implored. “You still may get [COVID], but I don’t think you’ll get it nearly what I’ve had to go through.”

It’s not just his health that been impacted. A long hospital stay and breathing equipment is expensive.

Mann showed us a lightweight, portable oxygen tank he’s had his eye on, so he can move around more often. It cost $2,500.

Some in the running world have begun a fundraiser on GoFundMe. You can find the link here.

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