Not everyone who meets Carmen Lerma at community events knows what she’s been through.
“I thank God every day that I’m alive and that he gives 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 of 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, where the flu shot, the COVID-19 vaccine and the booster vaccination were offered.
Lerma, a longtime community advocate born in Puerto Rico and raised in Milwaukee, is on a mission to get more of the city’s Latino population vaccinated.
“I’m Latina, and being Latina, I understand that sometimes we hesitate to do certain things for certain reasons,” Lerma said. “My mission is to educate as many people as possible that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. It’s meant to protect you enough so that you don’t have to go through what I went through.”
It’s been just over a year since Lerma survived a double lung transplant after her battle with COVID-19 caused irreversible damage to her lungs. She still practices how to do normal things like coughing and yawning.
“The only thing I notice is that my chest and lungs are tighter, so when I sneeze or breathe I feel them expand,” Lerma said. “Many people don’t realize that after a lung transplant you have to relearn how to cough, yawn and sneeze. Those things don’t just happen by themselves anymore.”
Lerma is back working part-time for UMOS, mostly from home. She likes to be busy, but admits it’s remarkably harder to do so.
“People need to understand what the coronavirus is doing and causing,” Lerma said.
Lerma gets blood every week and takes 52 pills a day to keep her body from rejecting her new lungs.
She says her battle with COVID, and the toll it took on her body, also caused other ailments, such as hair loss, diabetes and thyroid disease.
At the end of October, Lerma had to undergo emergency surgery because of a stomach complication.
“Doctors put me under to look at my lungs, and they found something wrong in my stomach,” Lerma said. “I don’t remember much about it, but I have 30 staples in my stomach. Doctors told me I got very sick, very quickly.”
A passion for living and helping people continues to fuel Lerma through all health challenges.
However, the trauma she has endured has led to insomnia and anxiety.
“I’m not ashamed to say I need the help because it really touches me emotionally,” Lerma said. “I’m supposed to wear a machine every night to breathe, and I can’t bring myself to put it on because I instantly feel like I’m locked up under a mask in the intensive care unit, like I do.” last year was 45 days long.”
The pain she still faces and fights to overcome gives her new purpose.
“I just want to make a difference,” Lerma said. “Not only have I suffered the effects of COVID, but I have friends and family who have died from it. People need to know how to protect themselves and their families.”
Working closely with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Carmen has helped plan nearly 40 vaccination clinics and discussions through the end of this year on the south side of Milwaukee, home to the largest concentration of Latino families in Wisconsin.
Our state’s Latino population is being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccination rates among this group are lagging.
At this time, approximately 45 percent of the total Hispanic and Latino population in Wisconsin is fully vaccinated.