Lezlie and Rylee Lawson felt buoyed by their community.
Rylee Lawson, 14, always had what she and her mother, Lezlie, used to call a “sensitive stomach.” In fourth grade, Rylee missed a week of school when her stomach acted up.
It got worse. In November 2019, she was cheering her first basketball game when she had to leave at halftime after nearly fainting, her vomiting spells had drained her so much. She could not keep anything down. Rylee was admitted to Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and remained there for three weeks.
The week before Thanksgiving, she was diagnosed with cyclic vomiting syndrome.
“Who’s ever heard of that?” Lezlie said.
After the doctors performed an upper gastrointestinal series on Rylee, they found an intestinal malrotation and had to operate urgently.
With all the time Lezlie and Rylee had to spend in Orlando, away from Flagler Palm Coast High School where Rylee was in school and away from Imagine School at Town Center where Lezlie works, it seemed both of them would suffer for their absences from the Flagler school system.
But, Lezlie said, “They’re like a family there at Imagine.” Her superiors put her under no pressure to return to work while Rylee was still being treated.
“They told me, ‘If you ever have to take off, go; take care of your daughter,’” she said.
The support for the Lawsons did not stop with permission to take time off. Lezlie ran out of sick days to use, so most of her time off was unpaid. Nobody told her directly, but a human resources employee implied that other teachers had contributed some of their sick days to her after she ran out.
“I didn’t even know how people knew,” Lezlie said, “I’m a pretty private person.”
But someone must have told the students that Miss Lawson’s absence was to do with her sick daughter, because they decided to help in a major fashion.
Every year, Imagine has a program called “4th Grade Gives Back,” in which the students fundraise through some avenue and decide what to do with those funds. In 2019, led by teachers Colleen Fonte, Joshua Hoppock and Darla Beck, they sold cocoa throughout September and voted to donate $500 to Lezlie before winter break. They surprised her with the money in a presentation ceremony Dec. 18.
When Lezlie first returned in early December, Principal Lisa O’Grady took her into her office and presented her with get-well cards from fellow staff and from the different grades.
“Thank you for helping us a lot,” read the card signed by the entire fourth grade. “You are a big help to everyone, Ms. Lawson. You always have a positive attitude. You're wonderful!!!!”
“In this trying time, cling to the fact that you are loved deeply by your Imagine family,” read O’Grady’s card.
Road toward recovery
The rest of Lezlie’s intervention team — eight or nine teachers who work with individual students with learning disabilities — gave her a $200 gift card.
“I just thought it was really sweet,” said Rylee of the generosity from Imagine. “They don’t really know me, they just know my mom, so it was really nice.”
“But she’s definitely on the right road toward recovery,” Lezlie said, “and I couldn’t have done it without their support.”
Rylee’s friends came through for her, too, being driven to visit her in the hospital by Melissa Castañeda, who became her Hospital Homebound teacher.
“It’s just kind of hard getting back into school after being gone for so long,” Rylee said.
She said she is feeling better, is no longer vomiting multiple times every day, but still has some way to go. Her recovery has no exact timeframe, but she will probably have some level of cyclic vomiting into her 20s.
“I’d been on so many different medicines,” she said, “and none of them had worked. I’m definitely not eating as much anymore. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t know me personally, ‘Yes, I look fine, but on the inside I’m not fine, and if I drank one sip of water I’d throw it up right now.’”
While Rylee was left too drained of energy to return to her basketball cheerleading squad, her fellow cheerleaders made her an eight-foot-long banner full of pleasant doodles and get-well messages (“Hope you’re up and cheering again soon!”). She still has it, along with most of the balloons and stuffed animals she was brought during her stay in the hospital.
“People wondered where I went,” Rylee said.
“High schoolers,” Lezlie laughed, “they do care! I’ve never experienced anything so positive, for such a negative scenario.”