By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
COLLIERVILLE — As the world stands divided over where facemasks should be worn to help prevent the coronavirus, it’s not an issue for Mark LaGrone.
It’s not even up to debate for the 60-year-old LaGrone, who serves as the discipleship/assimilation pastor at First Baptist Church, Collierville.
LaGrone’s resolve for the need to wear a face covering while the world is still dealing with the coronavirus is based on that he knows firsthand what it is like to live with the disease.
“If wearing a mask only helps 0.01 percent then I would wear one every day for the rest of my life so that people would not have to go through what I have gone through,” the minister affirmed.
LaGrone’s journey with the virus began on May 6 and though he is no longer contagious, his bout with COVID-19 is far from over as he still deals with side effects from the disease.
Actually, his journey began about eight weeks before May 6 because both his wife and his daughter had mild cases of COVID-19 and still have symptoms of the disease flare up on occasion.
He noted that comparing COVID to the flu is a misnomer. “I have had bronchitis and pneumonia and neither were anything like this.”
LaGrone recalled that he started with what has been described as the “normal symptoms” of the coronavirus — dry cough, fever, burning chest, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. “The fatigue is the worst part,” he said, adding that when the virus hits, “you could not move if someone put a gun to your head.”
He warned that it is important to know the symptoms because test results are not always accurate. “I tested negative,” he recalled. The disease was finally discovered in a lung x-ray. “Sometimes, you have to diagnose based on symptoms alone,” he said.
LaGrone recalled that at one point he “was as close to death as I think I have ever been.” Weeks went by and while he was some better he still struggled to breathe and he developed additional symptoms of the coronavirus that are not as publicized such as crepe skin, night sweats, balance issues and kidney and lung problems.
“There is no vaccine at this point, so they can only treat the symptoms,” LaGrone said. “Your body just has to wear through it.”
Ever the minister, LaGrone has become a fixture on web forums comprised of COVID-19 patients. “These help in just knowing there are others who are going through what you are,” he said.
LaGrone advised against joining the forums unless you have the disease. “As you can imagine there are many stories that would break your heart. There is a lot of stress and anxiety.
“However, I have been able to tell people I will pray for them and give them words of encouragement. The mental toll of this virus is hard. Not a ministry you want to choose, but God never wastes a hurt.”
LaGrone is resigned to the fact his symptoms could continue for some time. “I’m known as a long-hauler, meaning my symptoms will go on for months,” he related.
“At this point, I know I will never fully recover to my previous level, but I am praying that God will let me get close.”
Because his immune system is down and his “lungs are shot,” LaGrone is trying to stay quarantined as much as possible because “many scientists now believe that it is possible to catch COVID a second time.”
LaGrone is grateful for his church family at First Baptist, Collierville. “The church has been very supportive. I haven’t had to worry about anything but getting better,” he affirmed.
LaGrone’s colleague, Sam Nichols, noted that prayer has been the key.” Many of our church members have faithfully lifted Mark up to our heavenly Father,” said Nichols, executive pastor at First Baptist.
In addition, Nichols and pastor Chuck Herring “have tried to be diligent to stay in touch with Mark, to encourage him, to pray with him on the phone and to assure him of the church’s support.”
His colleagues have assumed his responsibilities so that he could focus on recovering, Nichols added.
Back to the facemasks. “There seems to be a debate on whether wearing masks is effective with studies changing their conclusions daily,” LaGrone acknowledged, adding that people have taken “the issue of wearing masks to a whole other level.”
He encouraged Christians to heed the words of Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambitions or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourself.”
“I would urge you to consider the well-being of others when you decide whether or not to wear a mask,” LaGrone asked. “I cannot tell you how hard this is on the body.”
He added that taking precautions and trying to social distance does not mean you lack faith. “You need to respect the virus and live your life with precautions and not in fear. … This is a virus we need to take seriously.