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.
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.”
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.”
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.”