Editor’s note: This article is part two of a two-part series stemming from the Community Q&A session held at Common Ground United Methodist Church on Aug. 11. See last week’s edition of the Star for part one, featuring vaccination information from local medical professionals.
Throughout the last year, COVID-19 has affected many aspects of everyone’s life. During the vaccination forum Aug. 11, COVID-19 survivors, a school nurse, and a pastor shared their personal experiences about how COVID-19 affected them.
People from the community who go to the government center may recognize Tom Scharf, who currently works part-time as courthouse security. He is retired from a 26-year career as a deputy sheriff, and a 30-year career in the military, both active duty and reserve. He also shared that he is a grandfather to three young children.
“My health history is fairly good, aside from being a type II diabetic and I did have two heart attacks in 2020,” he said. “I’m the sole caretaker of my wife, with Alzheimer’s disease and my elderly parents, 88 and 89 years old.”
In mid-December 2020, Scharf started to feel ill. He went to get tested for COVID in preparation for traveling during the holidays, which resulted in a positive result Dec. 22. “I knew it would be positive, because from the time I took the test I was still in bed. I did not get out of bed from the 20th of December until Jan. 1, when I broke down and called an ambulance and they hauled me out of the house,” Scharf shared.
He doesn’t remember much about the time between Christmas and New Year’s, but he didn’t want to go to the hospital and leave his wife and family without him over Christmas.
Scharf was taken to the hospital in Sandstone, and stayed only long enough for a hospital bed to open at St. Mary’s hospital in Duluth.
“Upon arrival in Duluth, I was immediately stripped, sterilized, placed in a gown, my chest was shaved, and the heart monitors and other monitors were put on,” Scharf continued. “I was going downhill pretty quick.”
He praised the nurses for being able to do what they do in full personal protective equipment (PPE). He explained that, as a patient, he could feel the heat coming off their bodies while working 8 to 12-hour shifts wearing PPE.
“I was put in a converted closet, because they didn’t have the space for me (in the ICU), or actually other people, as well. You could obviously tell it was a converted storage closet,” Scharf said, explaining how the room was “extremely loud.” COVID patients are placed in negative pressure rooms. In Scharf’s room, there was a box fan-type thing always running with 14 or 16-inch tube that went to the outside.
“I didn’t go on a vent. They wanted to put me on a ventilator, and I think the look on my face – they kept me off the vent, which made me very happy,” Scharf continued, noting he was on heated high-flow oxygen for a long time. “I spent nine days in the ICU. Once again, that time was a blur. I was either sleeping, sweating, drawing blood or giving blood, whatever they do. On day nine I got out of the ICU, on day 16 I could finally pee by myself, I didn’t need to be lifted out of bed and get that business taken care of. On day 19, I was released.”
Scharf participated in physical therapy the last three days he was in the hospital because his muscles had significantly deteriorated. He lost 42 pounds in 25 days.
“During the stay, many things go through your mind, and when I lay in bed there in the ICU, all I could think about was my mom and dad, my grandkids, and then, of course, my wife at home. And then just the general state of affairs – my home, my taxes, my pets, the bills, the heat and electricity in the house, plowing the driveway, because it was wintertime,” he said. “I just wasn’t there to do it.”
Scharf noted one of his biggest regrets is the medical assets he used while sick, knowing there may be children, elderly people, or those less fortunate who needed those resources.
“My recovery is ongoing, my lungs are still tore up. I was discharged on Jan. 19. My lungs are still week, but I’m still working them out,” Scharf said. “Like I said, I lost 42 pounds in 25 days, and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have too much problem gaining that back. Once I could eat, I ate – with a vengeance. But it’s the muscles that left and recovery has been taking a while. That was my experience with COVID, and I would do anything to keep anybody else from having to go through that.”
The next survivor to share their story was Tim Guderian, a business person from Cambridge.
“I thought I had bronchitis, I was coughing a lot. Finally on about the sixth day, my wife said, you better go get checked,” Guderian said. He went to the emergency room and found out he had COVID and pneumonia and would not be leaving the hospital. He spent nine hours in the emergency room until a room could be found for him, and then spent five days in the hospital and was treated with Remdesivir and was on oxygen.
Before entering the hospital, he hadn’t eaten for a few days. He lost about 16 pounds, and also lost his sense of smell and taste. He did gain the weight back when his sense of taste and smell came back after about four weeks.
“The recovery was a little slow. I really didn’t have the energy to do anything, and my lungs, when I went home, I still had trouble breathing,” Guderian said. “I tire easy. I live on the Rum River and I would go down to the river just to sit for a little bit, and then going back up the hill, it was about all I could do, and then I would have to go in and take a nap. Now, I’m not a nap person. I never have been. Usually when I take naps, I get headaches. Now, I have to take a few different naps, still taking naps yet, due to lack of energy.”
Before he became infected with COVID-19, Guderian and his wife planned to get the vaccine, he said. However, it was only April, and only those 65 years and older were eligible to receive the vaccine – Guderian was 63. Guderian’s wife also became infected. “The day I was released from the hospital was the day she went back in, and I gave up my bed so she could actually be there for an extra four days,” he said. “It’s not been a good experience.”
Susan Simmons, an audience member, explained herself as being “69-years-old and just a regular person.”
“I’m double-vaccinated, and the reason I’m here is because I wanted to be supportive of this effort, because I had COVID,” Simmons said. She became infected in December and was sick for five weeks, and credits Dr. Allen Mork for saving her. “He saw to my medical needs, but also kept my spirits up when I was going through what I was going through.”
Simmons did not end up hospitalized, but she had a temperature that got to 107 and had pneumonia. She had an oxygen unit installed in her bedroom. Her brother also got sick and was in the hospital with pneumonia for five days. Her mother had a mild case of COVID.
“You know, there’s nothing like being sick and lying there and worrying about your family and yourself,” Simmons said, noting that friends in the community pulled together to help, dropping food off at her doorstep. “I would so like to help anybody else not go through what we went through being sick with COVID. They are both doing well, I’m doing well, but I did get post-COVID syndrome.”
She explained her fatigue continued, and, although her sense of taste and smell came back, she still doesn’t have a trigger for hunger. Her hair fell out, but is coming back again. As soon as she was eligible to get vaccinated, she did.
“Since I had COVID, I did have a reaction to both of my shots,” she said. “My brother and my mother both had COVID, they didn’t have reactions to either one of them. It’s well-worth it if you have a reaction; 24 hours is way better than five weeks and post-COVID syndrome.”
Simmons also cautioned people about going down the rabbit-hole of information that social media can lead one down, noting that social media “watches” what those who use it are interested in and starts to feed them more of that information. “So then, I’m not getting a broad range of opinions or facts. Then I need to go look for those, because it will try to keep me channeled into the same information or type of information,” Simmons said.
PASTORING THROUGH A PANDEMIC
“While we have done our best to celebrate what we can do - we can still worship, we can still have modified events – every time the rules change, there are things we cannot do, that’s the reality,” Pastor Emily Martin of Cambridge Lutheran Church said regarding leading her congregants through the pandemic. “Now I don’t know if going back to normal will ever be a thing, or what the new normal looks like. All I know is that every time we pivot, it feels like we are leaving something behind.”
Her message was to “love your neighbor as yourself” by getting the vaccine.
“I’m not a scientist, or a doctor, so I cannot speak to the vaccine from that perspective,” Martin said. “But what I can do is tell you that getting a vaccine is an act of love for your neighbor - for your high-risk neighbor, for your immuno-compromised neighbor, for your neighbor who, for whatever reason, cannot get the vaccine, for your neighbor you don’t know. Every person who gets the vaccine helps us to keep the doors open and ministry in full-swing.”
During Lent, Martin and the other pastoral staff at Cambridge Lutheran Church encouraged congregants to give up social media. “We saw that was clearly the most damaging thing that was happening,” Martin said. “People who are out of work, who are at home, who all they are doing all day long is scrolling through social media.”
She explained this concept of “doom-scrolling” - sitting in front of a screen and scrolling and finding the deepest and darkest things on the internet because the brain is hyper-reacting to everything it reads. It was affecting peoples’ sleep and moods, she added.
“We saw it in just the way people were interacting with us and what they were expecting with their church,” Martin said. “I think when it comes to those kind of things, that’s one of the reasons to be connected to other people. There have to be sounding boards in your life, otherwise social media is all you’re going to see and all that you have to react to.”
In conclusion to her message regarding getting vaccinated, Martin stated, “I know that living in the unknown is stressful, I know that gathering is essential to who we are as people. We were created to be together, to do life together. To celebrate, to laugh, to grieve,to cry, to grow, and to share – together.”
BEING A SCHOOL NURSE DURING A PANDEMIC
“Last year was very, very challenging. All we did was COVID stuff,” said Judy Bendickson, the nurse for Braham schools. “We didn’t do vision screening, we didn’t do hearing screening. COVID really took over, and I would say the masking really helped.”
Although she thought it would be a busy year in the health office with a variety illnesses, she was only busy when a student or staff had symptoms of COVID-19. She attributed the lack of influenza and other illnesses to wearing masks.
After the challenges of last year, Bendickson said the quality of education this year weighs on whether or not those eligible get vaccinated. “The younger kids, they can’t right now, so it really weighs on the rest of us on getting vaccinated, spreading the word, being compassionate and empathizing with those who really are on the fence yet,” she said.
“When it comes to education, a lot was lost last year,” she continued. “At the beginning I thought, ‘I have to tell kids, families, you have to stay out 14 days?’ It was really incomprehensible, especially with older kids missing two weeks. But, we got going on it and it was just a daily thing. It was very hard on school districts.”