The sun was beaming on a late May afternoon three years ago and the Georgia humidity made the air feel sticky. We found a shaded picnic table by the river and pulled out dinner.
My husband, Joey, and I were lucky enough to be enjoying a double date with our longtime friends, Keith and Leah Williams (shown above, far right; Leah’s in the individual pictures).
We had all attended the same church and essentially grew up together in Atlanta, Georgia. Though life had taken us in different directions, we resumed our conversation that evening by the river as if no time at all had passed since we were at Sunday school years earlier.
We chatted about life, old and new jobs, living away from family, and the ways we’d changed over the years.
What has stayed with me most about our conversation, however, was Keith and Leah’s generous and hopeful outlook on life. It’s remarkable to me because their story is etched in struggle.
Fifteen years ago, in January of 2004, Leah lost her dad, Wesley Dodd. His premature death came just two months after she and Keith began dating.
Navigating a new relationship while grieving such an immense loss in the family was hard — but together these young people weathered it.
A couple years of later, in November of 2006, Keith and Leah got married and embarked on their bright future together.
Keith worked (and still works) in the Georgia General Assembly — the state legislature — and they both became fitness coaches.
Keith and Leah thrived on helping others achieve their health goals. They prioritized cultivating a positive lifestyle and shared useful workouts, nutritious shakes, and delicious recipes along the way.
They constantly gave to others — and especially to their community.
Fast forward a couple of years to 2011, by which time Leah was struggling with various health symptoms. As she was able to, she worked from home, despite the pain and fogginess that took up residence in her body.
She extensively researched various possible causes (and cures) and became even more vigilant with her diet. Her journey toward healing, however, was only at its earliest stages.
Not long after, in April of 2012, Keith’s father, Randy Williams, passed away at age 61 from ALS and dementia, compounding their grief and struggle. Even amid his own sadness, Keith continued reaching out to others, asking how he could help.
It was a trait he learned from his dad’s servant spirit.
Leah’s health continued to deteriorate. Sometimes she would be bedridden for weeks due to severe fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, and other scary symptoms.
Rarely was she able to leave home.
Along with this loss of her health, Leah and Keith experienced a different loss: the loss of community. Since they were now rarely able to get themselves to social events, it became increasingly difficult for them to maintain close relationships and keep up with friends.
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Somehow they still managed to celebrate, comfort, and reach out to people virtually via Facebook.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the life-crushing weight of living with chronic illness, they were able to deeply empathize with others who were hurting.
The last four years for this extraordinary couple were full of doctors’ appointments and exams as Leah sought answers and a diagnosis.
Even with good insurance, seeing specialists and getting tests took every penny they had and then some.
Meanwhile, Leah’s health continued to deteriorate.
In 2017, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, mold illness, co-infections, chemical sensitivity, and chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as other serious health conditions.
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Lyme disease alone is awful and difficult to treat, as each person’s body responds differently.
It’s a life-altering disease that often takes away even the simple things in life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 329,000 cases of Lyme disease occur annually in the U.S. — yet public funding per patient is far below that for other less common illnesses.
The other illnesses Leah is also fighting make her condition high-risk and require a specific environment even to begin treatments.
The mold illness and mold contamination in the couple’s home of 12 years requires them to get rid of everything they own (except for a few photos).
It’s as if a fire or flood is destroying all of their belongings — only in this instance, the problem is not covered by insurance (mold isn’t covered in the state of Georgia).
The loss has been overwhelming. “Jesus hold us tight. It hurts so bad!” has been Leah’s fervent prayer.
Until recently, Leah and Keith have been battling everything privately, using their own resources and with the support of family (though they don’t have any family living nearby).
They’ve spent all of their savings and they’ve also accumulated debt in their search for answers and healing to the struggles Leah has been having.
They’ve researched and tried everything within their power to do what they can.
It’s become a much harder and longer journey than they ever expected.
But now they’re humbly and bravely asking for help.
They’re starting completely over — housing, furniture, clothes, cookware, and more, plus specialists, tests, and treatments.
They can’t do this alone.
That’s why, as a friend who loves them dearly and wants to see them get through this, I decided to start a GoFundMe campaign called Help Leah Heal to raise the necessary money to cover life-saving medical care and treatments; care for Leah when she’s too sick to care for herself and when Keith has to work; and replacements for all the many household items they’ve lost to mold.
Even in moments when Leah feels like she can’t get through another day, her desire is to stay positive.
She refuses to stay “stuck.”
She’s raw and real — but never throws a pity party. She’s clinging to hope and working hard to claim complete healing for her body.
As her concerned friend, I’m looking forward to the day this deserving and very special young woman is well enough to have another picnic by the river.
We’re hopeful that day is soon.
To visit the GoFundMe account for Leah, click here.
And learn more about Leah’s story in this video below:
Laura Tyson is an author, content strategist and marketing manager based in San Francisco, California. She is the author of “Engaging Difficult People: 100 Practice Lessons on Empathy and How It Transforms Our Relationships.”