COVID-19 also sickened her husband, so Kristi Mecikalski is well aware of the value of getting immunized.
As a nurse, Kristi Mecikalski had for months experienced the anxiety that any of her patients could transmit COVID-19 to her, or her to them.
But the pandemic became personal—and her relief at the emergence of a vaccine palpable—because of what her own family endured unexpectedly.
Kristi’s husband, Jeff Mecikalski, was deer hunting with family members near the northern Wisconsin community of Eagle River on Nov. 22 when he received a message he knew meant trouble.
His father, 78-year-old James Mecikalski, had collapsed and couldn’t get back up on his own. Jeff retraced his way back to his vehicle, then drove to assist his dad.
The elder Mecikalski, affectionately known as “Yukon Jack” for the outfitters store by that same name he had opened after retiring and moving to Eagle River, had fallen inexplicably twice in previous days and needed help getting back on his feet on both occasions. Troubled, his family had taken him to the emergency room at the local hospital, but he was sent home after tests showed the normally healthy man was okay.
Then, another fall. Wearing a mask to protect against possible transmission of the coronavirus, Jeff entered the house where his dad was and, mustering his strength, hoisted him up into a chair.
“He was gasping and gasping for breath,” Jeff recalled. “He was really struggling to breathe. I knew something was wrong.”
Jeff and his mother took James to the hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. Jeff’s mother, Joyce, was told she could no longer remain at her husband’s side because he was contagious with the virus.
Jeff, who lives in Eau Claire with Kristi and the couple’s two children, hadn’t taken the annual deer hunting trip lightly this year. Worried about contracting coronavirus, he stayed in a separate cabin with only his brother-in-law, remaining socially distant. He wore a face mask whenever he was around others.
But when he was called to help his dad after those falls, Jeff didn’t hesitate to assist. After his dad tested positive for the coronavirus, Jeff couldn’t help but wonder: Had he somehow been exposed to the virus?
It turns out he had. Several days after that incident, Jeff began to experience the symptoms that have become synonymous with COVID-19.
He developed a sore throat. His muscles ached. He had chills, and no matter how many layers of clothing he put on, he couldn’t get warm. He was tired, more and more. Soon every task, no matter how simple, felt like a marathon. Breathing became increasingly difficult. He lost his senses of taste and smell.
“I went through, one by one, every COVID symptom,” Jeff said.
On Dec. 1 he tested positive for the virus. He isolated himself at a cabin and spent each day in bed, struggling, hoping to get better.
“Jeff’s dad seemed pretty healthy for his age,” Kristi said. “The fact that he might have COVID wasn’t really on our radar. Then when he got so sick and died quickly, I really started to worry about Jeff.”
As Jeff first began to experience the onset of coronavirus symptoms, his father’s health was failing. His breathing became more labored, even as medical staff at the Minocqua hospital where he received care boosted his oxygen level.
In the early evening of Nov. 25, Jeff talked with his dad on the phone. James was fatigued but was able to talk. He asked when Jeff and his mom could come visit, then remembered they could not because of COVID-19. He asked how Jeff and his wife were doing, how the couple’s children were.
“I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. Then I told him to get some rest,” Jeff recalled.
It would be the last conversation they would have. A few hours later Jeff received a phone call from the hospital chaplain. His dad’s health was failing.
The next day family members conducted a Zoom meeting with James. A chaplain and a nurse served as intermediaries. Later that day he faded away.
“It’s not how you expect to say goodbye to somebody,” Jeff said. “It’s not easy.”
Seeking the vaccine
James Mecikalski is among a growing number of Wisconsin residents who have died because of COVID-19. On Saturday deaths attributed to the disease totaled 135, the highest single-day total recorded so far. As of Tuesday 5,512 COVID-19-related deaths have been recorded statewide, with 524,402 cases confirmed.
Nationally, deaths because of the virus are more than 400,000 and top 2 million worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.
Many who get the disease, especially younger people, experience mild symptoms or none at all. But others are more seriously impacted, and for some the virus is deadly.
To prevent more illnesses and deaths, public health officials in Wisconsin and elsewhere across the nation last month began administering vaccines to protect against coronavirus developed by Pfizer and Moderna. The initial rollout of the vaccines has been slower than projected in Wisconsin, but vaccination rates improved somewhat last week. People 65 and older, teachers, police officers, firefighters and people living in assisted living facilities, jails, and prisons are scheduled to begin receiving the vaccine soon.
As a nurse who helps manage healthcare for elderly people and those with physical and mental challenges, Kristi worries about contracting or spreading COVID-19 each time she talks with her clients face to face about their care, as required by the Department of Health Services.
But her desire to access the vaccine extends beyond herself. She watched Jeff struggle with the impact of the virus. She watched her otherwise healthy father-in-law die from it. In addition, her parents are 80 and 79 years old, and she has rarely been able to visit with them since pandemic-related restrictions began in March for fear of possibly transmitting the illness.
So when she had the opportunity to receive the vaccine to protect against COVID-19 last week, she was more than ready to take it.
“I have multiple reasons for wanting to get the vaccine,” Kristi said from a Chippewa County Health Department waiting room on Jan. 13, shortly before receiving her first dose during a vaccination clinic there. “I want to get it to protect myself and others with my job. And I want it to keep my family safe. I have seen what this virus can do.”
Chippewa County Health Department Director Angela Weideman has seen the impact of the virus too. She is heartened that case numbers have been lower for the past two months after a surge across Wisconsin in October and November left her department and hospitals overwhelmed amid a fast-rising death toll.
“We hope to get this vaccine to as many people as we can to keep another surge from happening,” Weideman said.
Grateful for Life
In the days after his father’s death, Jeff continued to get sicker with the coronavirus. Simply moving brought on breathing difficulties.
As his condition worsened, he worried he might wind up in the same unit to treat COVID-19 patients where his father died. On Dec. 6, after quarantining for 11 days, he mustered his remaining energy and drove three hours south to his home in Eau Claire.
“I focused as hard as I could on just getting home,” Jeff said.
By the time he arrived his breathing was labored and he went to the emergency room, where medical staff gave him oxygen. He returned home, where he was isolated. Bit by bit Jeff began to feel better, and after six days at home he was able to leave solitary living and rejoin his family.
“It felt so good just to be able to hug them again,” he said.
He eventually felt well enough to return to his job at 3M in Menomonie. As time progressed Jeff felt himself grow slowly stronger. Two months after contracting the virus, he feels mostly normal. But he still tires easily and experiences shortness of breath when he exerts himself, as he was reminded when he shoveled snow recently.
Jeff hopes that symptom disappears along with the others. His ordeal has left him wary of COVID-19, sad at the loss of his father, and grateful for having survived his bout with the virus.
“When you go through something like this, when you see a family member die, it changes your perspective,” he said. “I have a greater appreciation for my family, for the people around me that I love. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be able to go back to work, more than when I first started my job. I’m just happy to be here.”