Not everyone who meets Carmen Lerma at community events knows what she's been through.
“I thank God every day for being alive, and for giving me one more day to do something positive,” Lerma said. “When I wake up in the morning, that’s the first thing I do. I give thanks and say please give me the strength to do as much as I can today.”
On Saturday, at an event outside UMOS that Lerma helped organize, families were able to get free Thanksgiving turkeys, groceries, Walmart gift cards, and other resources. There was also a vaccine clinic, offering the flu shot, COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot.
A long-time community advocate born in Puerto Rico and raised in Milwaukee, Lerma’s mission is to get more of the city's Latino population vaccinated.
“I am Latina, and being Latina, I understand that sometimes we're hesitant to do certain things for certain reasons," Lerma said. “My mission is to educate as many people as I can that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. It’s meant to protect you enough for you to not go through what I went through.”
It's been a little more than year since Lerma survived a double lung transplant, after her battle with COVID-19 did irreversible damage to her lungs. She's still practicing how to do normal things like cough and yawn.
“The only thing I notice different is my chest and my lung areas are tighter, so whenever I sneeze or breathe, I can feel them expand,” Lerma said. “Many people don’t realize after a lung transplant you have to relearn how to cough, yawn and sneeze. Those things don’t just come naturally anymore.”
Lerma has returned to working for UMOS part-time, mostly from home. She likes to keep busy but admits it’s remarkably harder to do so.
“People need to understand what the coronavirus does and causes,” Lerma said.
Lerma gets blood drawn every week, and takes 52 pills a day, to help keep her body from rejecting her new lungs.
She says her battle with COVID, and the toll it took on her body, also prompted other conditions, like hair loss, diabetes and a thyroid disorder.
At the end of October, Lerma needed emergency surgery for a stomach complication.
“Doctors put me under to check on my lungs, and they found something wrong in my stomach,” Lerma said. “I don’t remember much of it, but I have 30 staples in my stomach. Doctors told me I got very sick, very quick.”
A passion to live and to help people continues to fuel Lerma through all the health challenges.
The trauma she's been through, though, has prompted insomnia and anxiety.
“I'm not embarrassed to say that I need the help because it's really affecting me emotionally,” Lerma said. “I’m supposed to wear a machine every night to help me breathe, and I can’t get myself to put it on because it takes me right back to feeling like I’m trapped under a mask in intensive care, like I was for 45 days last year.”
The pain she still deals with and fights to overcome, giving her a new purpose.
“I just want to make a difference,” Lerma said. “Not only have I suffered the repercussions of COVID, but I have friends and family who have died from it. People need to know how they can protect themselves and their families.”
Carmen is working closely with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, and has helped plan nearly 40 vaccination clinics and discussions through the end of this year on Milwaukee's south side, which is home to Wisconsin's largest concentration of Latino families.
Our state's Latino population is among the community's hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccination rates among this group are lagging.
Right now, about 45 percent of Wisconsin's total Hispanic and Latino population has been fully vaccinated.