By Sterling Sidebottom
Leah Brooks was walking from Alpine Bagel in the UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union when her phone rang, Gwyn Lanning’s name lighting up the screen. The call was a strange one to be getting at 11 a.m. on a Monday, but she had also just spent the morning holding her boyfriend, Sam, after he found out his dad had gotten worse.
“It was a realization that his mom trusts me enough to call me and the fact that she didn’t want Sam to hear her upset,” Leah said.
On March 14, 2021, Hoy Lanning, Sam’s father, was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) for COVID-19. The next day, Leah picked up Gwyn’s phone call, got Sam from the Ram’s Head Gym and drove her red Subaru to Albemarle, North Carolina.
As stressful as the situation was, Leah was also calm.
“I needed to be there for him,” Leah said. “It wasn’t my place to be frazzled.”
‘My job was to comfort Sam’
When the pair walked through the door of Sam’s house, his mom’s eyes were still red. His grandmother also had tears in her eyes. Sam immediately went to hug his mom. The two held each other for a minute. This left Leah holding their bags and standing in the doorway not knowing what to do.
“I know his parents well, but not super well, so I just kinda stood there awkwardly,” Leah said.
In the three weeks to follow, that would change.
Leah stayed in Albemarle for four days, Monday through Thursday. Each morning would start with a FaceTime call into the hospital to talk to Hoy. In the frame would be Gwyn, Sam, his grandmother, and Sam’s sister Sarah. Sitting next to Sam, but out of the video frame, was Leah.
“It was a little weird,” Leah said. “I became more comfortable. Also, just knowing that my job was to comfort Sam.”
On the very first call, Hoy was still breathing on his own. He could talk, so the family would talk with him. They would pray for him. They would tell him they loved him. There were a few tears.
The second day, Hoy was put on a ventilator, and Leah’s role evolved. When Sam saw his father on the ventilator, he cried.
“There’s a type of strength you have to have,” said Grace Warner, one of Leah’s junior year roommates. “She’s a strong woman.”
In the first week that Leah was in Albemarle, the days blurred together. There was a lot of studying for her LSAT. People would stop by and drop off food. Leah would spend time playing cards with Sam, Sarah and Gwyn. As Hoy stabilized, Leah also began to think about what she had left behind.
With it not being her father in the hospital, part of Leah felt like a burden, so, on Thursday, she left Sam and his family and returned to Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, it was short lived.
That Sunday, while at the Southpoint Mall shopping for a graduation dress, Leah’s phone rang. This time, it was Sam’s name on the screen in front of her. Hoy’s heart stopped while the doctors were attempting to roll him onto his stomach. Leah picked at her fingers and rubbed them against the edge of her mask as if she wanted to bite them.
In the car on the way home, she asked if he wanted her to come back. Sam thought he’d be okay. He didn’t want to be a burden on her or for Leah to see him struggle. Slowly, that shifted.
‘In sickness and in health’
A few hours later, Sam called Leah again. This time, Hoy was being airlifted to another hospital, a larger one with more resources. Leah was heading back to Albemarle. If there was an inner sense of calm Leah called upon during that first drive, there was fear during this second one.
When she walked in the door of the house, now filled with people checking in on the family, it was her turn to hold Sam.
“There’s ‘in sickness and in health’ and then there’s this,” said Amy Brubaker, a friend of both Leah and Sam.
This, meaning a parent in a state of limbo, where one end is the unthinkable and the other is a long path to recovery, can shift a dating relationship.
“Seeing him so upset made me really upset and seeing how much he relied on me for support,” Leah said. “I really do think it brought us closer together for sure.”
For Emma Uhrlass, the change she saw in Leah was endearing. “She was able to pick up the pieces for him but also communicate with everyone in Chapel Hill. She could lift that weight for him.”
In just a month, Leah went from Sam’s girlfriend to a key support system. In sickness and in health, she shouldered a responsibility that was both unexpected and much larger than anything in the past. The situation brought Sam and Leah closer together, but it also brought her closer to his family.
Sarah, described by Leah as a hard-ass, began advocating for Leah and Sam to be able to stay in the same room together — an unthinkable arrangement in a Southern household. Maybe it was the stress of the situation, or that Gwyn had bigger concerns to worry about, but she agreed.
After Hoy was stabilized again and Leah returned to Chapel Hill for a second time, Sarah even sent Leah $100 on venmo for “babysitting” Sam. It’s the little change that maybe would have never happened had the two not spent a week in that high-stress environment.
Sam’s sister wasn’t the only one to warm up to Leah.
“His mom texted me ‘I love you’ the other day, which really means a lot,” Leah said. “I think she saw how much I cared and tried to take care of Sam.
On April 8, 2021, three weeks after being admitted, Hoy was moved from the ICU.
Edited by Addison Skigen & Makayla Williams