CRAWFORD COUNTY - Rural mail carrier Craig Bell was Crawford County’s first COVID-19 patient and his ordeal with the corona virus seems to speak directly to our current crisis.
The 59-year-old Eastman resident’s COVID-19 journey began with the last day he delivered mail. Bell returned home after work on Friday, March 20 feeling like he was getting a cold.
By Saturday, March 21, he was feeling a little worse. Then, on the evening of Sunday, March 22 while he was really not feeling well, he saw on the television news that there were drive-through COVID-19 testing stations set up in LaCrosse. He wanted to go, but learned you must drive there (about 50 miles) alone and he felt too weak to do that.
As the week went by, Craig continued to feel poorly and was not recovering. So, on Thursday, March 26, his wife Julie convinced him to go to Urgent Care at Crossing Rivers Healthcare in Prairie du Chien. The diagnosis was probable influenza and he was sent home with Tylenol.
Two days later, Craig returned to Crossing Rivers’ Urgent Care. This time, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and dehydration and prescribed antibiotics. He was also tested for COVID-19.
Three days later on Tuesday, March 31, Julie and her son Tyler returned with Craig to Crossing Rivers Urgent Care. Julie told the staff that they must do something because her husband was not getting better.
Julie and Tyler drove off to get some more pills for Craig and to attend to some other business. They returned to Crossing Rivers, where they waited in the parking lot for a phone call about Craig. After three hours of waiting, a nurse called to inform them that Craig’s results for the COVID-19 test had arrived and he was positive.
The nurse informed them that arrangements were being made to send Craig by ambulance to Mayo Clinic Franciscan Skemp Health-care in LaCrosse. Since they could not see Craig, Julie and Tyler decided to return home.
Upon arriving at the house, Julie got a call from Crawford County Public Health explaining the situation. Craig was headed to LaCrosse.
“I remember thinking oh my God, I’m the first one in Crawford County to get it,” Craig said recalling the moment he learned he was positive for COVID-19. “I remember thinking what does this mean?”
Craig remembered that he had gone to Crossing Rivers simply to see what could be done. He had no idea that he would be kept in the hospital or what that would entail. He was about to find out.
Craig’s memories of what happened for the next two weeks are pretty fuzzy to say the least. He remembered the ambulance ride up Highway 35 was pretty uncomfortable because of the condition of the roadway and the bumps.
At Mayo in LaCrosse, Craig was immediately placed in a room in the Intensive Care Unit. Then, things essentially stopped for him on a conscious level, as the attending physicians decided to induce a coma in hopes that it would help his body recover under less stress.
Craig Bell spent about a week in the coma. Then, the medical team decided it was time to bring him out of the coma. The method to bring him out of it involved placing adhesive tape against his skin and pulling it off. While the pain normally involved with such a procedure would be considerable, Craig could only barely remember a vague feeling of things happening on his body.
Eventually, he came out of the coma and what he saw confused him.
“I was coming out of this dream state and I can remember looking up and seeing my name on the wall Craig said. “I was confused and I’m asking them what’s going on? Why am I here? Then, I notice I’m surrounded by all these young people–everyone is 25 to 30 years old. There are nurses, interns and others there–but they’re all so young. I’m as old as their dads. It just confused me.
“What’s amazing to me is that they cared so deeply for me. They would do these nice things for me.
“One young guy asked me if I liked country music. I said I did and he told me that he had been singing to me during the night.
“They said they were inspired by me and I said no it’s the opposite. I am inspired by you.”
Finally, after 12 days or so, it was time for Craig to leave the ICU for a regular room in the hospital.
“When they wheeled me into the hallway, there were all these people there clapping for me. To realize so many people cared so deeply about me, it was overwhelming.
“So, when you do this story, don’t just tell my side. After meeting those young professionals, I know we’re going to be okay as a society in the future.”
Although Craig Bell can remember some of the details, most of what happened is part of a confused recollection caused by pain, high fever and a long-induced coma.
“I was half scared and the other part, I wasn’t even in this world,” he explained.
Craig remembered being hooked to machines with tubes running down his throat in the ICU. He also remembers a lot of things in his body shut down.
Was he on a ventilator?
“I guess so,” Craig said.One resulting problem is he now needs to have kidney dialysis three times per week. He gets driven to Onalaska for the procedure by his neighbor Brian Sipos. Brian was also there to drive him home from the hospital when he was finally released.
So, Brian drove Craig back from the hospital to his house in Eastman. About a quarter mile from the house, Craig noticed there were fire engines with their lights on and lots of vehicles parked in front of the house.
“What’s going on?” Craig asked Brian.
Brian looked over and smiled, according to Craig.
“You better learn how to wave,” Brian told Craig. “They want to welcome you home.”
“There were tears streaming down my face,” Craig said. “I get out of the truck and there are all kinds of people there and everybody is cheering. What a wonderful feeling. There’s nothing like living in a small town.”
Where did Craig Bell contract the COVID-19 virus?
“Well, that’s the million-dollar question,” Craig replied. “I guess we’ll never know. I guess it might have been on something in the mail. They say it can live this long on plastic and this long on cardboard. Who’s to say? I don’t know. We’ll never know.”
As for now, Craig is going to kidney dialysis three times a week and getting stronger.
“I don’t know if I can dance a jig, but every day is better than the day before.
“Right now, I’m trying not to veg out too much,” Craig said. “I love sports and the sports world is shut down. I watched the Milwaukee Brewers play the California Angels in a 1982 playoff game the other night. It was great seeing Robin Yount and Jim Ganter again.
“I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers and just thinking of my family. I received so many cards and letters, it took me three or four hours to read them all. The tears were streaming down my face, reading all those nice words.”
One of the hardest parts of the ordeal was that nobody could visit Craig, including Julie and Tyler. In Craig’s final days at the hospital, Brian was able to install a camera and create a Zoom video connection that allowed Julie and Tyler to talk with Craig.
The emotional impact of the illness has been huge. Seeing his parents Dick and Betty Bell again was quite emotional.
“I told them stuff that was just taken for granted,” Craig said. “I told them how much I loved them.”
And, there was a conversation with his boss, Gays Mills Postmaster Diane Roy, who he credited with being so helpful throughout his ordeal.
Bearing the brunt of a lot of it was Craig’s wife Julie Bell, who could do virtually nothing about the situation. She remembered wondering every time the phone rang, if she was going to be planning a funeral or whether it would just be more news.
“I learned that Julie is lot stronger than I ever gave her credit for,” Craig said about his wife’s tenacity during his illness.
Yes, Julie came through when the chips were down, but it took a toll on her.
“What am I supposed to do, Tyler and I are quarantined for two weeks,” Julie said. “Two weeks ago, I was planning a funeral.”
Julie used the term “wonderful” to describe the work of Mayo’s Dr. Mike Harrison, who was among those who treated Craig.
“They called around the world to find out everything they could about treating him,” Julie explained. “Remember this was all new to them.”
Although Dr. Harrison said Craig would not remember most of it, he did remember some things–some from reality and some from dreams and maybe some from somewhere in-between.
“He said to me, ‘I was in a bubble. I went to the candy store. Then, I was in a schoolhouse’,” Julie recalled.
“I think Todd Bell was watching out for him. I think Todd saved him. I think he’s damn lucky,” Julie said.
Todd Bell was Craig and Julie’s adult son, who passed away in 2012.
What does Julie think of COVID-19 now?“When you lived it, skied it and jumped it, like I have–all I can say is it’s a horrible thing and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone–ever.”