TAMPA — As she lay in an intensive care unit bed at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, Sonya Bryson-Kirksey had a conversation with God.
It had been nearly two weeks since she entered the hospital with COVID-19 pneumonia and she felt like she needed a miracle. She knew her plans might differ from God’s, but she wanted to get in a quick word before she went to sleep for the night.
“Listen, I don’t feel like I’m done,” she remembered praying. “I have so much to do and I’m not finished singing. I want to sing, and I have singing goals, and I’m just not done.”
That evening, she slept soundly and woke up the next morning feeling like her health had turned a corner. It continued on an upward trend as she was released from the hospital nearly two weeks later.
And Bryson-Kirksey isn’t done. She returns to the stage tonight at Amalie Arena to sing the national anthem ahead of the Lightning’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the same night the team will raise a banner celebrating the 2021 Stanley Cup win.
It’s a special night all around, and one Bryson-Kirksey, 54, feels ready for nearly two months after she was sent home to continue her recovery.
“There is so much going through my brain,” she said. “Just the overall happiness of being here … the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people, the ice, the players — just all of that, just everything kind of mushed into one and how it makes it seem like I’ve been away for years, but you don’t believe how that one month can make a difference.”
Long recovery ahead
As a people person, Bryson-Kirksey already had been challenged by the pandemic’s call for social distancing. It became unbearable in the hospital with only her cell phone connecting her to family and friends.
Bryson-Kirksey kept busy with a small calendar in her room to mark off the days. She would make note of anything — big or small — that happened that day so she could recall it the next.
“It was important for me to be able to keep some kind of structure in my head,” she said. “That was the only thing that was a norm.”
Something else quickly became the norm: prayer for herself and accepting prayer from those around her. The former U.S. Air Force technical sergeant, who also has multiple sclerosis and other underlying health issues, found a new internal strength.
“Nobody’s time is promised on this planet,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “...It made me rethink a lot of things about what I’ve done and what I still have yet to do. ... I was kind of worried for myself for a while and at that point I was like, ‘I’m not done. I’m not done with this life. It’s time for me to get better.’ ”
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A persistent cough troubled doctors and nurses before she left the hospital on Aug. 13. One doctor advised her to rest her vocal cords through the end of the year and resume activity in 2022.
“Okay, you’re crazy,” she remembered thinking at the time. “My head snapped back so quick when she said that.”
Bryson-Kirksey wasn’t looking to put on a concert, but she wanted to test the waters. In the hospital, she would hum along with the television in her room. But she wanted to take it a step further in the comfort of her Riverview home during her first week back and days after the heavy part of her cough had finally subsided.
She sat down on the shower stool in the square-shaped stall and started taking deep breaths. Then she let out a couple of notes, which led into some vocal exercises. The combination of deep breathing and moisture from the steam helped.
“I would sing a little until I felt like my chest was hurting and then I would stop,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “Or in the shower, I would test it a little bit on a quiet note.”
Once was enough to prove to herself she could do it. The next week, she tried it a few more times and was pleased with the progress. By the third and fourth weeks, she was singing daily.
Returning home to Amalie Arena
Bryson-Kirksey was never asked if she would be well enough to kick off the Lightning’s 2021-22 season. Those around the organization would reach out to her in concern. She never felt pressure to return on anyone’s time but her own.
But as the calendar neared Oct. 12, Bryson-Kirksey knew she had to make a decision. She sent an email to John Franzone, the Lightning’s vice president of game presentation, letting him know she was all-in as of late September.
She tried not to think about the date as much as she just tried focusing on getting better. She started moving around more — quite literally as she moved houses this fall — and learned to adjust to her new limitations.
“After COVID, you have new lungs,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “Your lungs don’t work the way they did before.”
On her first run-through with organist Krystof Srebrakowski, she discovered her breath control was different while singing the anthem. And while her hard stops remain the same, she feels a slight difference. Her body had changed, and she had to accept that.
“For somebody who’s watched and listened to me for the almost nine years that I’ve been here, they’ll be able to tell,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “People who just love me and love to hear me sing and don’t really pay attention to the song, they won’t be able to tell.”
On Monday, Bryson-Kirksey went through another rehearsal. She belted out the notes the same way she had always done, building into the toughest part one stanza at a time. When she hit “and the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” she knew she had it.
“I’m back!” she screamed, punctuated by two fist pumps. “I’m back!”
When she steps into her arena tonight, the butterflies will be back — the good ones that remind her not to take a stage like this for granted.
“I’m not nervous because this is my family,” she said. “I feel like I can make 10,000 mistakes in the anthem and they still love me and they’re going to help me sing regardless.”
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