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Palm Beach County middle school teacher recovers from 'downward spiral' of COVID-19

Fully vaccinated Karen Epstein missed first 3 weeks of school year because of coronavirus
Wellington Landings Middle School teacher Karen Epstein walks for physical therapy, Oct. 2021.jpg
Posted at 5:00 PM, Nov 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-02 23:34:44-04

WELLINGTON, Fla. — A fully vaccinated Palm Beach County teacher has a long road to a full recovery after contracting COVID-19 right before the start of the school year.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education

"The left hand is very painful and weak," said Karen Epstein. "I have balance issues, I have breathing issues, and I have cognitive impairment where it's the worst feeling in the world. You got a word on the tip of your tongue and you can’t spit it out."

Those are just some of the lingering effects of Epstein's battle with COVID-19.

"It was the beginning of school and I was so sad," Epstein said. "I’ve never in 25 years missed the first day of school, and I just felt like it was such a dark place I was in and I was in so much pain."

The longtime Wellington Landings Middle School teacher is immunocompromised and was fully vaccinated before coming down with the virus in the days between teaching summer school and starting the new school year.

"I was OK, and then I was down. And the downward spiral was really strong and kind of scary," Epstein said.

Epstein credits her school community and positive attitude for pulling her through a very difficult time, getting messages from students she knew and some she had never met.

"Missing the first three weeks of school was a knife in the heart. It was so depressing," Epstein said. "They would text or email me or send me a funny GIF or meme just to keep my spirits up. And those messages meant everything."

While Epstein missed so many moments in the classroom, when this TV production and theater teacher was finally cleared to go back to work, it was like getting her life back.

"I feel like I'm a reflector. And you have to be healthy to be a reflector of their energy and let their light shine. But if you’re not healthy, you can’t do that," Epstein said.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education

Epstein's mantra of kindness radiates through every life she touches, like a student's mom who decorated the cane she now needs to walk.

"She wrapped the cane and just put so much work into it. And every time I see it, I don’t see the disability. I see Bob. I see the minion," Epstein said.

Epstein believes the COVID-19 vaccine saved her life and is learning to give herself grace through the healing process.

"This illness has a way of first tricking you to think you can do more than you can. And then when it gets you, you sit there and kind of beat yourself up," Epstein said. "And no vaccine can fix that. The only thing you can change is the attitude."

Encouraging her students to be story tellers, Epstein said she’s still navigating how she’ll tell this chapter.

"When I look at everything as a whole, I feel the warmth of support. But I also feel the depths of what this illness can do that we still don’t understand, and it's scary," Epstein said.

So she’ll keep moving forward, thankful for every step.

"On my strongest days, yeah, I'm trying to groove and dance with everyone else. And on my weakest days, I'm doing that too," Epstein said.

Epstein said she was diagnosed with post-COVID syndrome and knows her recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. She'll be reevaluated in December to gauge her progress.

The School District of Palm Beach County has reported more than 900 employee cases of COVID-19 since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, but the numbers are down significantly over the past month and a half.