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Fighting for his life: Strum man survives 11 days on ventilator from COVID-19

STRUM — Mike Wolf’s introduction to the COVID-19 pandemic began in May as a persistent cough with a bit of congestion.

“It was really no different than the normal allergy symptoms I get that time of year,” said Wolf, who was 39 at the time and considered himself a healthy guy.

Just to be safe, when he developed a fever, Mike went to get a COVID-19 test in Arcadia, where the Wisconsin National Guard happened to be offering free tests.

A few days later, his results came back positive.

Somehow, although his family had been careful to follow recommended safety precautions and, with the exception of going to work, had been mostly hunkering down in their Strum home for the previous two months, Mike had contracted COVID-19 and become a statistic in the pandemic that has now resulted in more than 29 million cases and 925,000 deaths worldwide.

His nightmarish battle with the virus led to a 43-day hospital stay that included 11 days on a ventilator. During that time, Mike suffered from blood clots, collapsed lungs and his heart stopping twice.

The only good news, if you can call it that, is that Mike doesn’t remember the worst of the ordeal, as he has a monthlong gap in his memory.

Four months after he started feeling ill on May 17, Mike still is too weak to work. His goal is to return to his job as a materials handler at Ashley Furniture in Arcadia by February — a full nine months after the onset of his first symptoms.

“What a mess,” Mike said, summing up the impact of COVID-19 on his life.

Condition worsens

Ironically, it wasn’t Mike the family was worried about as they sheltered in place during the early days of the pandemic.

They were more concerned about his wife, Brandi Wolf, 33, who has an underlying health condition, autoimmune hepatitis, that places her in a high-risk category for complications from the coronavirus.

Despite quarantining Mike in the basement by himself, Brandi began feeling ill about a week later and also tested positive for COVID-19. She dealt with fever and shortness of breath but was feeling pretty good by early June.

The Trempealeau County Health Department was planning to release the couple and their three children from quarantine on June 2 when Mike began experiencing severe pain in his legs and on the bottom of his heels. He had trouble walking.

“It felt like I was stepping hard on rocks,” recalled Mike, seated at his kitchen table wearing a Packers hat and a T-shirt with the phrase “Off Duty: Go Ask Your Mom” emblazoned over the word “DAD.” “There was obviously something going on with my health.”

Brandi took him to the emergency department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Osseo.

Even though heel pain and leg swelling were his initial complaints, doctors were more concerned about his respiratory status, according to Raneau Myhre, the physician assistant who evaluated him. Though he was not visibly short of breath, his color was gray.

His initial vitals showed a pulse oxygen saturation level of 58% on room air. Typically, people become short of breath and require supplemental oxygen when this value drops below 90%. Wolf told doctors his fingers and toes would turn gray or blue at times, which is consistent with decreased oxygen saturation in his extremities, the hospital reported.

A CT scan showed multiple clots throughout his lungs, and an ultrasound confirmed blood clots in his legs as the source of his pain and swelling. COVID-19 is known to increase hypercoagulability, or stickiness of the blood, which increases the risk of clots in the lungs and legs, Myhre indicated.

The discovery, Mike said, helped explain why he had been having trouble doing even simple tasks at home before being admitted to the hospital.

That evening, Mike was taken by ambulance to the critical care unit at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, where Dr. Jeremy McBride, an interventional radiologist, placed a filter in Mike’s inferior vena cava, the vein that carries blood from the legs back to the heart, to decrease the risk of more clots breaking loose in his legs and traveling to his heart or lungs. He also was placed on blood thinners.

With his breathing continuing to worsen, doctors decided to place Mike in an induced coma and on a ventilator, a machine that continued to breathe for him for a week and half.

Dr. Adel Zurob, the pulmonologist and critical care intensivist who cared for Mike during his hospital stay, said it’s not unusual for COVID-19 patients who require a ventilator to stay on it that long.

While early in the pandemic the chances of intubated patients surviving was less than 20%, the odds have improved as doctors worldwide have learned more about treatments that tend to improve outcomes, Zurob said.

“If you’re that sick that you start accumulating organs that are failing, then your odds of surviving become less and less,” he said. “If you end up on a ventilator, your chances of not making it are still higher than making it.”

Hitting home

Brandi, meanwhile, was unable to be at her husband’s bedside because of visitation policies intended to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Instead, she communicated with hospital staff twice a day, struggled to sleep because of anxiety and continued to care for the couple’s three children, ages 3, 13 and 14, none of whom ever developed any COVID-19 symptoms.

“You just had to keep going,” she said. “You couldn’t let the kids see your fear.”

She did a fairly good job of staying calm until one night when, as she was speaking to medical staff on the phone, Mike’s heart stopped and she heard them calling for a crash cart.

“That’s when it really hit me,” Brandi said, recalling that she went outside and broke down.

The magnitude of the situation struck again, Brandi said, when a Mayo Clinic Health System doctor later told her he didn’t know if Mike would survive and had a nurse in his room 24 hours a day so he wouldn’t die alone.

While Zurob doesn’t recall making such a statement, he said nurses indeed focus on the human aspect of care — holding a person’s hand, sitting at the bedside and keeping families connected — when patients are at risk of not surviving.

Focus on prevention

Doctors have no way of knowing which patients will suffer organ failure or blood clots in the lungs — two of the potentially fatal complications that often result from the virus, Zurob said, citing the Wolf family as an example.

“You have someone who is baseline healthy and they get sick like this and they are touch-and-go and could have died,” Zurob said of Mike. “Then you have in the same family his wife who was maybe not as healthy at baseline and she gets through it just like she had a little cold or something.

“That’s the million-dollar question, or billion at this point: how to predict that.”

In the meantime, Zurob maintained the emphasis should be on how to prevent most people from catching the coronavirus rather than what to do once patients have COVID-19.

“The focus should be on the things that we know work — you wash your hands, you wear a mask, you stay away from people, you get your flu shot,” he said. “It changed our lives, that’s true, but it also has been shown to work in decreasing the odds of catching the virus because once you catch it, to some degree it’s luck whether you’re in that group that’s gonna just have a little bit of a sniffle and be fine or you’re on a ventilator and may not make it out of the hospital.

“If we all do that, we can get through the winter.”

Financial setback

Mike, who lost 40 pounds during his hospital stay, is one of 474 people from Trempealeau County to test positive for COVID-19. Twelve of those people have been hospitalized and two died, according to statistics from the state Department of Health Services.

Once Mike got off the ventilator, he began a long rehabilitation process, including the daunting challenge of relearning how to walk. He was able to connect with his children via Zoom on Father’s Day.

When he was deemed healthy enough to go home from the hospital, his release was delayed by another week because he still tested positive for the virus. He finally was discharged on July 15 — just in time for his 40th birthday later that week.

He is still going through physical therapy and doing daily exercises to regain his strength and lung capacity, a process that at times tests the limits of a sign hanging in the couple’s living room that declares “Home is our happy place.”

Estimating that he is perhaps 75% recovered, Mike said he can lift a patio block but is unable to shoot a basketball.

Financial side effects have made the family’s health crisis more difficult, as Mike has been unable to return to work.

That means he has gone four months without a paycheck. Brandi, who was off work for more than two months, returned to her job as an overnight baker at Panera Bread in Eau Claire on Aug. 1.

The financial fallout was compounded by Mike not qualifying for unemployment compensation because he was physically unable to work and and not having as much disability coverage as he thought — he received about $100 a week for 13 weeks.

With the family having exhausted much of their savings, Brandi hopes to land a second job to help the family scrape by until Mike is well enough to go back to work.

‘We were lucky’

Despite their traumatic experience, the Wolf family doesn’t plan to retreat inside their house completely as they ride out the pandemic.

Mike is looking forward to attending his children’s athletic events — something that was difficult with his work schedule — but the family still plans to follow public health recommendations about washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing.

“You can’t live in fear of it. It’s here,” said Mike, who suspects he may have picked up the virus by inadvertently touching his face. “Don’t let it ruin everything for you, but be cautious.”

Brandi added, “We will keep taking precautions, but we can’t let it rule our lives.”

Through it all, Mike and Brandi said they never wondered why this happened to them.

“I didn’t feel sorry for us because he made it through,” Brandi said, glancing at her husband. “You look at all of the people who didn’t, and I realize we were lucky.”

Pence highlights law and order during Wisconsin visit

MADISON — Vice President Mike Pence emphasized President Donald Trump’s commitment to “law and order” during a campaign stop Monday in swing state Wisconsin about 70 miles from a city where sometimes violent protests erupted following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Pence, speaking to an enthusiastic crowd inside a Janesville hotel, credited Trump with stopping the violence in Kenosha after he sent about 200 federal officers there. Those officers were dispatched after Gov. Tony Evers had activated the Wisconsin National Guard to quell protests after the Blake shooting.

Both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visited Kenosha just days apart two weeks ago.

Pence said that Biden would “double down on all the policies that have led to violence in American cities.” He accused Biden of signaling a “lack of support or waning support” for law enforcement that emboldens those who oppose them.

“We are going to have law and order in every city, in every state in this country for every American of every race and creed and color,” Pence said as the crowd broke into chants of “U-S-A!”

Biden, when he was in Kenosha, drew sharp contrasts with Trump, saying the unrest that followed the shooting of Blake, a Black man, gave the country an opportunity to confront centuries of systemic racism.

Biden met with members of Blake’s family when he was in Kenosha and spoke to Blake from the hospital, where he is recovering after being shot seven times in the back. Trump met with local local enforcement officers while in Kenosha but not with Blake’s family. The president offered his unvarnished support to law enforcement, blaming the violence on “domestic terror.”

Pence also referenced the weekend shooting of two Los Angeles County deputies who were wounded after a gunman walked up to a parked sheriff’s squad car and opened fire.

A handful of protesters gathered outside the hospital where the injured deputies were being treated. Videos from the scene recorded at least one person in the crowd yelling, “I hope they ... die.”

Pence noted that comment in promising the crowd in Janesville that the Trump administration would stand by police.

“The president and I will always support the right of Americans to peaceful protest,” Pence said. “But rioting and looting is not peaceful protests. Burning businesses is not free speech. Bringing violence against innocent civilians or those in law enforcement must stop and it must stop now.”

Pence has been a frequent visitor to battleground Wisconsin, having stopped in La Crosse just last week. Pence’s visit to Janesville on Monday came 50 days before the election and four days before Trump was to hold a rally in Mosinee in central Wisconsin.

EC school district may push referendum back a year

EAU CLAIRE — A planned referendum for the Eau Claire school district could be pushed forward by a year.

Later this month, the Eau Claire school board will likely vote on pushing the referendum from April 2021 to April 2022.

Two major factors are driving the push, school officials said at a board meeting Monday: Changes related to the coronavirus pandemic, and uncertainty about K-12 funding in the state’s upcoming 2021-23 biennial budget.

The district doesn’t know if all of its students will return to brick-and-mortar school buildings when the pandemic is over, though “we feel confident right now that those students will come back … once this has ended,” said Abby Johnson, executive director of business services. “It’s difficult for the district to make plans in an unusual school year.”

The district isn’t expecting any big hits to its revenue during the 2020-21 school year, but “we’re hearing 2021-2022 will be different,” Johnson said.

If that’s the case, and the school board still decides to pursue a referendum in April 2021, at that point school officials may not have a good idea of what the 2021-2022 district budget will look like that year. That would make landing on a referendum dollar amount more difficult, Johnson said: “It’s going to be hard for us to estimate our operational needs.”

The district’s Budget Development Committee has also discussed shifting the referendum forward by a year.

“Quite a number of those very important factors are much more unknown than normal because of COVID,” said board member Aaron Harder on Monday evening.

Before the pandemic, school officials planned to hold community forums in April and bring three possible referendum questions to the board in May, Johnson said.

“All that work was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Johnson said Monday.

The next steps in the referendum process — meeting with the community, talking to district employees and meeting with the school buildings that would potentially be impacted by a referendum — would look “very different” now, Johnson said.

The board hadn’t yet set a dollar amount for the referendum, but it could include funds for a renovation at South Middle School and several Roosevelt Elementary School maintenance projects, according to planning documents and board discussions.

Projects at those two schools were eliminated from an $87.9 million referendum that passed in the district in 2016; those two projects could cost $25 to $30 million, former Eau Claire schools superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said in November.

Another matter that could draw referendum dollars: Adding onto three south side elementary schools to alleviate what school administrators say is urgent overcrowding.

In other school district news:

  • Two Eau Claire schools have seen positive COVID-19 cases, said Kim Koller, executive director of administration. No close contacts were identified in either of those cases, Koller said Monday, praising the schools’ safety measures. School officials did not release details about those cases Monday night.
  • The school board on Monday approved several staffing changes. Locust Lane Elementary Principal Laura Schlichting will become the district’s new virtual elementary programming administrator, and Memorial High School assistant principal Travis Hedtke will become the virtual secondary programming administrator. Sam Davey Elementary principal Joe Eisenhuth will also serve as half-time Locust Lane Elementary principal.
  • The board voted to reduce the school parking permit rate from $50 for the school year to just a processing fee of $12.50. The reduction is due to “the volume of students driving to school is less than in a normal year,” according to meeting documents. If the district were to move to all-virtual classes sometime during the year, the processing fee wouldn’t be refunded. The move reduces the school district’s parking permit revenue by about $28,000.
  • Two new student representatives gave their first reports to the school board Monday. Those new representatives are Zoe Wolfe of North High School and Emery Thul of Memorial High School. Student representatives serve terms of Sept. 1 through May 31.
  • Six seniors at Memorial and North high schools are semifinalists for National Merit Scholarships, Eau Claire schools Superintendent Michael Johnson said Monday. Those seniors are Rachel Lester, Joshua Mithuen, Emery Thul, Benjamin Young and Dalena Young of Memorial and Morgan Jaenke of North, according to the district.