This Teacher Saved a Grandmother’s Life Thanks to Virtual School at Home

“If it wasn’t for them,” said Phillips, “I wouldn’t be here.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julia Koch began what was only her second year as a first grade teacher in a virtual classroom at Edgewood Elementary School in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. One September after­noon a few weeks into the school year, she received a call from Cynthia Phillips, who was having technical difficulties with her granddaughter’s tools for online learning.

Koch immediately knew something was wrong with Phillips. The two women had spoken numerous times before, but Koch had never heard the grandmother sound quite like this. Her words were so jumbled that Koch could barely understand her, though she was able to make out that Phillips had fallen four times that day. Koch called her principal, Charlie Lovelady, who assured her that he would call and check on Phillips himself.

Just like Koch, Lovelady could barely understand Phillips. He suspected she might be having a stroke—he recognized the signs from when his own father had suffered one. Lovelady was able to make out the word kids and immediately became concerned that Phillips’s two grand­children, ages six and eight, were probably home alone with her—she is their primary guardian—and scared. Lovelady asked his office manager to send an ambulance to the grandmother’s home. Then Lovelady called Vandiebilt Mathews and Keytria Burt-Walker, two deans in the school district, to tell them what was going on. Both of them dropped everything and drove to the family’s home.

text: “If it wasn’t for them,” said Phillips, “I wouldn’t be here.”

When they pulled up less than ten minutes later, the EMTs were treating Phillips while the two girls, looking visibly shaken, were outside with a neighbor. The quick response from Koch and Lovelady saved Phillips’s life. She arrived at the hospital in time to get treatment and before chronic damage occurred.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here,” said Phillips from her hospital bed about a month after her stroke. Thanks to an extended stay in the hospital, she has regained most of the movement throughout her body except for one hand and a portion of her mouth, which affects her speech.

“I’m proud of the people I work with, that they responded so quickly and that it did make a difference for Mrs. Phillips,” says Koch. “I am so pleased to be part of such a caring community.”

But the school’s crisis response is only one piece of the community’s extraordinary efforts to help Phillips and her granddaughters. Another family with young children took in the two girls. When that became too much to handle during the day with at-home learning, school administrators contacted the local Boys and Girls Club, where the girls now spend their days as part of a program to help working parents.

They return to the host family at night.

Virtual learning has been a challenge across the country, but it’s fair to say that in Muskegon Heights it has helped the community grow closer. Many teachers there gave their personal phone numbers to students and families in case they needed extra help. In this case, the exchange was literally life-altering.

“The outpouring has been very humbling,” Koch says about the recognition the school staff has received for their efforts. “But I also know that it’s part of the kind of community we’re in. We care about each other, and we don’t just say the words. We follow through.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest