When her fight against a deadly virus began shortly before Thanksgiving, a Rusk County woman wasn’t sure she would live to see the new year or her family.
Ana Altendorf, who lives in Bruce, began her long odyssey with COVID-19 on Nov. 13, when she started showing symptoms common with a general sinus infection like severe congestion, a stuffed-up nose, headache and eye pain. She went to the hospital in Ladysmith, where a nurse took her temperature, scanning her forehead at 101 degrees and checking it again orally at 100 degrees.
“The nurse said, ‘My friend I think you have more than a sinus infection,’” Ana said.
A doctor was called, asking Ana additional questions about where she had been and who she had been in contact with.
Ana was sent home and ordered to rest, take medication for the symptoms and drink plenty of water.
Medical staff called Altendorf the following day to tell her she had tested positive for COVID-19, giving her orders to stay home in quarantine.
Ana, 53, who has worked as a receptionist at Artisans in Glen Flora for about 9 months, called her employer, who told her not to worry and focus instead on getting better.
She rested. She drank water. She took medicine. The temperature stayed up. Then the nausea hit.
“I started getting weaker and weaker. I didn’t want to eat. I wasn’t hungry,” Ana said.
Her illness felt like it was getting progressively worse.
Her husband, Randy Altendorf, 57, came upstairs the next day and knew immediately something was seriously wrong with his wife’s health.
“Randy said I wasn’t looking good, and he was calling the ambulance,” Ana said.
The Altendorfs, who moved to Rusk County six years ago, had been dairy farmers west of the Twin Cities before being squeezed out of the Minneapolis area by urban sprawl. They feel very fortunate for the vast amount of generosity and prayers they received from the community they now call home.
At the time they moved to the town of Atlanta home north of Bruce in the fall of 2014, they didn’t know anyone in this area. Over time, they began to meet many of their neighbors through the St. Mary’s Catholic Church community. During COVID-19, they quickly realized they were no longer strangers to anyone.
It has been unbelievable, according to Randy. Since November, the couple has been the recipients of food baskets left on the porch, get well cards in the mailbox and phone calls of support.
“It has been really something. The generosity of the people has been overwhelming We have been really fortunate. We really have,” Randy said.
The Altendorfs have a huge garden. Each year, they also raise a few head of beef steer and swine in addition to the vegetables they grow.
Raced to the hospital
When EMTs arrived at the Altendorf home, Ana already was too weak to walk down the stairs. They placed her in the ambulance and rushed her to the hospital in Ladysmith, where medical staff desperately tried various measures to get air into her lungs.
“I just could not do it,” Ana said.
Doctors were running out of options. They finally told Ana the only option left was to place a tube through her mouth and then into the airway in a process known as intubation. This is done so that a patient can be placed on a mechanical ventilator to assist with breathing during anesthesia, sedation or severe illness.
The word “intubation” came as a shock to Ana, who told the doctor, “You are not putting that tube in me.”
The doctor replied, “We are not asking. We are going to do it.”
“They had to do it. They had no option. It was a matter of life and death and that is pretty much how I was,” Ana said.
Everything began happening in a short period of time. She was sedated for the intubation procedure and airlifted to Marshfield Medical Center Hospital in Eau Claire.
With COVID stealing her lungs of their efficiency, the ventilator was now pumping life-saving air into her body to help keep her alive.
In a drowsy state, Ana vaguely recalls asking at some point if she could see her husband.
“I didn’t know exactly where I was. I kept saying, I need to talk to my husband. I need to talk to my husband,” Ana said. “The doctor called my husband, and I couldn’t even hold the phone.”
She didn’t know where she was, but she did know one thing.
“I just knew I was deathly sick,” Ana said.
Each time she would regain consciousness, hospital staff would ask if she knew where she was. Each time, she would cryptically answer with the word, “Manhattan.”
Hospital staff continued asking Ana if she knew where she was each time they would wake her to draw blood, bring her food or give her medication.
“They kept asking me, ‘Ana, do you know where you are,’ and I kept telling them I am in Manhattan,” Ana said. “That went on for a while.”
They wanted her to eat, but she still wasn’t hungry.
Ana has no idea what led her to think she was in Manhattan, other than she once lived there with her sister and niece. One day, a hospital dietician finally told her she wasn’t really in Manhattan. He pointed to a medical staffing schedule sign on the wall that read, Marshfield Clinic Hospital in Eau Claire.
“I just started crying. I was only an hour and 15 minutes from my husband. Oh my goodness, I just started crying,” Ana said. “At that point I started remembering what happened to me at the house when the ambulance came.”
She was still too weak to turn herself in bed, move her legs or get up to walk herself to the bathroom.
“It was a big shock. I didn’t realize COVID was so severe where it can cause you to be put into a coma and be intubated for over two weeks. There are serious consequences from this than people might think, and people need to be conscious of that, ” Ana said.
For the two weeks she was intubated and on a ventilator, she didn’t feel anything and doesn’t remember much.
Doctors came and went. Nurses cared for her around the clock. The hospital chaplain visited. There were dozens of health care workers who passed her bedside.
“The chaplain said I was very ill and he didn’t think I was going to make it. He prayed for me, and I just started bawling. I am just so thankful so many people prayed for me and got me back,” Ana said.
Chaplain John Wigand, the director of spiritual care at Marshfield Clinic Hospital in Eau Claire, visited Ana almost every day, including when she was critically ill. He brought in a priest to offer Anna the Anointing of the Sick. Anointing is offered to persons who through sickness or old age, and the associated complications, are nearing death. However, it is also offered to persons who are struggling with illness but not in danger of death, provided the nature of the illness is sufficiently serious.
“She was near death,” said Wigand adding hospital staff members are pleased to know Ana is now recovering.
A prolonged 30-day hospital stay can result in a strong connection between a patient and health care workers, according to Wigand.
“Ana is a very sweet person and really touched the hearts of a lot of the staff here,” Wigand said. “The whole staff was delighted to hear she is recovering as quickly and as well as she has.”
Wigand called it encouraging for health care workers to hear uplifting stories about recovery amid the more difficult situations they often face during the ongoing pandemic. He added while Ana was hospitalized she struggled with the very real likelihood of not making it home for Christmas.
“I wasn’t really optimistic that would be the case,” said Wigand, adding patients sometimes face lengthy rehabilitation after hospitalization just to regain their strength.
On the road to recovery
Then, Ana’s condition began to improve.
Nurses in the Eau Claire COVID unit who turned her and asked her where she was came to her bedside, telling her she had been “very, very ill.”
“They said to me, ‘You made it Ana. You’re a miracle. You were very, very ill, and we didn’t think you were going to make it,’” Ana said.
Ana has strong praise for the hospital staff, thanking them for their work, and wishing God’s blessing on them and their families for working every day in a risky environment. She calls the health care workers who treated her “unbelievable.”
“They are overworked and tired, but they still have the spirit to take care of you and make you feel good,” Ana said.
“I had so many nurses wanting to come and see me because not many people make it,” Ana said. “I made it. I am a miracle, but at the same time I couldn’t move my legs or do anything.”
Ana was released from Marshfield Clinic Hospital in Eau Claire on Dec.18. She then faced five more days at the assisted living facility, Chippewa Manor Nursing & Rehab, in Chippewa Falls. There, staff helped Ana regain the strength she lost during her month-long battle with COVID-19.
Wigand was surprised when he received a text message one day from Ana that included a picture of her and her husband together again a few days before Christmas.
“There were some challenges to her making a complete recovery, getting to rehabilitation and building her strength back up so she could be discharged in time for Christmas. I was not expecting that,” Wigand said. “I was actually surprised when she texted me on Dec. 23 to tell me she was being discharged. That was great.”
Ana finally arrived home, just in time to be with her husband and family for Christmas.
She is now in physical therapy retraining her body to do the everyday tasks she once took for granted. She walks with the assistance of a walker due to weakness caused by the illness. She has limited movement in her arms. She tires easily. If she lays down, it is hard to lift herself back up.
“If I lay down in bed, if I try to move to one side it is still very hard. I still don’t have that strength back,” Ana said.
Apart from family
With such a highly contagious illness like COVID-19, she was not allowed any visitors to her room. This included her husband, who made a point to call every day.
A nurse held the phone so the couple could talk to each other.
Her sisters, one in Minnesota and two in Mexico, also called to check on their sibling’s progress.
Underlying health conditions
It is possible Ana’s diabetes may have played a role in her illness. People with diabetes are more likely to have serious complications from COVID-19, according to the American Diabetes Association. In general, people with diabetes are more likely to have more severe symptoms and complications when infected with any virus.
The risk of extreme sickness is likely to be lower if a person’s diabetes is well-managed. Having heart disease or other complications in addition to diabetes could worsen the chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, like other viral infections, because more than one condition makes it harder for your body to fight the infection. Viral infections can also increase inflammation, or internal swelling, in people with diabetes. This can also be caused by above-target blood sugars, and that inflammation could contribute to more severe complications.
COVID-19 is proving to be a more serious illness than seasonal flu in everyone, including people with diabetes. Patients have reported a wide range of symptoms, ranging from mild symptoms to severe illness. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. Pay attention for potential COVID-19 symptoms. These include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.
Wear a mask
Ana, who was born and raised in Mexico and has been living in the U.S. for the last 33 years, learned first-hand COVID-19 can be far more life-threatening than a simple fever, even though the illness causes only minor symptoms for some. Despite all her efforts to follow the health precautions like wearing a facemask, practicing social distancing and avoiding large group gatherings, she still caught the disease.
Despite that, she strongly encourages others to follow health recommendations intended lessen the risk of catching COVID-19 and slow the spread of the coronavirus. She also wants to add protective glasses to her arsenal as the illness can also be spread by hand-to-eye contact.
“Be conscious of the other people because anybody can get it, and it can get really bad like it got to me,” Ana said. “Mine got really bad.”
She is on the long road to recovery. Physical therapists are treating her at home. Nurses come to her house to do medical assessments.
“They said it is going to be a full recovery, just being in a coma and intubated for two weeks your muscles, body and brain shut down,” Ana said.
The experience has been a shock for Ana, who was so weak at one point, nurses had to hold her cup so she could sip water.
Randy added they each wore masks and were extra careful about the coronavirus.
“If anybody followed the rules, she was doing it. She washed her hands. She wore a mask. She stayed away from crowds. If people take the virus lightly, that is probably not the best advice. This illness is pretty serious,” Randy said. “If I learned anything from this, she followed all the rules and still got it anyway. That just goes to show how tough this virus really is. She was not being careless, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
The couple still hasn’t added up how much their medical bills will total.
They have health insurance, which Randy says will help.
“The verdict is still out. We will find out,” Randy said.
Back to normal
Ana can’t wait to get back to work, calling her employer, Artisans, “amazing.”
“They understand what is going on. I call them up worrying about losing my job, and they tell me not to worry about my job. I am just the receptionist,” Ana said.
Artisans staff sent her a card telling her they can’t wait to see her back in the office.
“I am always happy with a big smile,” Ana said. “The company is just amazing. I would not change this job for anything. The people are so good. It is a family, pretty much. It is wonderful. They are understanding. They tell me I have a job and that is to take care of myself and concentrate on healing and getting better.
Between Ana’s job at Artisan’s and the couple’s farm on Bernard Road near Bruce, the Altendorfs feel blessed by the outpouring of generosity from every corner of Rusk County. They feel grateful for everything they received and hope one day they will be able to return the favor.
“I was overwhelmed with the amount of calls we got and the food that got left on our porch. It says a lot about the people up here,” Randy said.
Artisan’s also called regularly asking how Ana was doing and if the couple needed any help.
“Basically from Glen Flora to Rice Lake there were people offering to help us with anything we needed. We were lucky, very lucky,” Randy said. “We feel very fortunate.”
With Randy battling his own case of COVID-19 while his wife was hospitalized, there was little he could do but remain home in quarantine. The community came to their rescue.
“We were not alone. I can guarantee you that,” Randy said. “It was pretty overwhelming to say the least.”
Artisan’s staff is looking forward to the day Ana can return.
Human Resources Manager Woodene Stevens said the entire company’s workforce became very concerned after learning Ana was hospitalized. She called Ana a sweet and likeable employee.
Company emails often included progress reports on Ana’s health, according to Stevens. She called every employee important at Artisans, adding Ana has a personality and character any employer would want.
Artisan’s signed Ana up with short term disability so she could collect income while out of work. The company also qualified for Families First Coronavirus Response Act relief, making the Altendorfs eligible for additional financial support.
“I am so thankful she pulled through. She’s a fighter,” Stevens said. “We are all just really pulling for her and hoping she can make a full recovery and come back to work.”
Home for the holidays
With Ana seated in a wheelchair and about to he discharged from Marshfield Clinic Hospital in Eau Claire, healthcare staff rolled their patient toward the exit doors. Over the intercom, they played uplifting music for COVID patients as they are being discharged. For Ana it was the Johnny Nash classic, “I Can See Clearly Now.”
The Altendorfs have been married for 23 years. Ana saved her final thanks for her husband, Randy, who contracted COVID-19 a few days after she did.
“He has been a trooper. He has been by himself,” Ana said. He got it way less serious. He was tired. He was weak, and he had a cough.”
When she was being transported by ambulance to the Ladysmith hospital, she was texting her sisters. She called her husband, but he wasn’t allowed into the hospital.
“I could not see my husband until the day he picked me up to bring me home,” Ana said.
COVID 19 is not a simple illness to take lightly, according to Ana.
“I want people to be more conscious about what it is, and it can be worse, and the worse is obviously you will not get out of the COVID unit at all,” she said.
Ana recalls the illness for her became so bad she couldn’t breathe, move or walk without assistance.
“I want people to realize it can get really bad and think about themselves and older people. If we do our part they should do their part to and not take it lightly,” Ana said.
Ana arrived home two days before Christmas.
“That was the best present I got, being home with my husband for Christmas,” she said.
“I tell you, I got a present when Ana came home for Christmas. We have nothing to complain about. She is getting better every day,” Randy said. “I feel very fortunate that she is home.”