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Principal returns to school after near death battle with COVID-19

RESERVE — At 66 years old, Riverside Academy Principal Michael Coburn had never been admitted to the hospital – not even for a broken bone. That changed when COVID-19 stole the air from his lungs, leading to a 62-day hospitalization and a brush with death that would forever change his life.

It was a joyous sight when Coburn made his long-awaited return to school on Dec. 14. He was greeted by a sign in front the school and the warm embrace of his Riverside Academy family.

“Kids were crying, I was crying, teachers were crying. It was a very emotional, rewarding experience because I wanted to be back here so bad,” Coburn said.

Coburn is overjoyed to be back, and he looks forward to sharing his COVID-19 survival story with students after the Christmas break.

It all began when Coburn started experiencing shortness of breath without any other symptoms in early August 2020. He tested positive for COVID-19 and started taking antibiotics at home. However, his breathing got worse and worse until his wife brought him to the emergency room. Chest x-rays revealed double pneumonia had overtaken his lungs.

Coburn was transferred to the Ochsner Medical Main Campus in Metairie. He remained in a regular room for two days before a downward health spiral landed him in the ICU.

“I stayed in the ICU for 25 days. It was very emotional, very touching. There were good days and there were bad days,” Coburn said. “It got to a point where I was going down pretty fast. They didn’t read me the Last Rites, but they were very straightforward and said I would probably end up on a ventilator. The doctor said, if you go on a ventilator, know that 50 percent of people die, and 50 percent of people live. Thank the good Lord in Heaven, I got better, and they did not have to put me on a ventilator.”

The medical team saw Coburn’s recovery as a miracle. However, avoiding the ventilator did not mean his stay in the hospital was without strife. Every day was a battle, both against his physical limitations and against loneliness.

Strict COVID-19 protocols meant his wife and family were unable to visit. Coburn laid on his back in a bed for more than 50 days, hardly moving at all. He entered the hospital on August 8 at 200 pounds and left on October 8 weighing 145 pounds. After he was discharged from Ochsner Main Campus, Coburn was sent to a rehabilitation facility to learn to walk and eat again.

There were sights in the hospital that Coburn will never forget.

“People were dying in that hospital. Lights were flashing. People were running back and forth,” Coburn recalled. “Some they saved, and some they couldn’t. When I went in, I saw people on gurneys outside in the hallways. Thank God I had a room. All these people who say COVID isn’t real – let me tell you, it’s real. It’s touched many, many people, and families have been devastated by loss of their loved ones. If it hadn’t been for the good Lord in Heaven, my wife and everyone here in this community, especially the Riverside families that prayed for me, I wouldn’t have made it. That gave me the strength I needed to keep fighting every day.”

Hundreds of “get well soon” cards from Riverside families flooded in. Coburn said it was a joy to read each and every one of them. The Ochsner Medical staff helped him immensely throughout his journey with compassionate care.

“I can’t say enough good things about the care I got at Ochsner Hospital Main Campus,” Coburn said. “They were outstanding. The hospital workers, the nurses, the doctors… they were at your beck and call. They were there 24/7, holding your hand, loving you, talking to you. On the day they released me, one of the doctors told me, ‘Mr. Coburn, you survived COVID. Twenty-five days ago, I didn’t give you a shot. I want to thank you for fighting and pushing to beat this battle.’”

Since he had such a severe case, Coburn will need to remain on portable oxygen for another two or three months. With time, the need for oxygen should decrease.

Coburn said this experience brought him closer to the Lord and has shown him what’s truly important in life.

“Life is important. How do you do the right thing each and every day? That’s what is going to make or break you in the long run. There’s too many little things in life that don’t matter,” Coburn said.

What does matter is the love shown by the Riverside Academy family and the chance to positively influence young lives for years to come.

“Now our whole team is back, and we are one again,” Coburn said. “That’s our motto – We are Riverside. We are one. Go Rebels!”