CBC S1 E1: Survivor Stories

Nov 15, 2020

We're all survivors of COVID-19. Here are a few select Midwestern stories.

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Reporter Julianna Dunphy decided that the best way to report on survivor accounts of the pandemic in the Midwest was to not report so much as just let people tell their stories.

Lisa Pettigrew, age 56, St. Paul, Minnesota

Lisa Pettigrew and her ex-husband traveled east to bring their daughter home in March of 2020 when New York emerged as a COVID hotspot and colleges began closing.

Lisa Pettigrew and her daughter. Pettigrew believes she contracted the virus while picking up her daughter from college in New York.
Credit Lisa Pettigrew

Once Pettigrew arrived in New York, she realized that her child wasn’t well. What she didn’t realize was that by driving home to St. Paul, she and her daughter were bringing COVID with them to the Midwest, which in early March had been relatively untouched by the virus. As her daughter lay in the back seat shivering, fever and chills began for Lisa.

“And so I’m thinking, OK, we got her cold.” But Pettigrew knew she had all of the classic COVID symptoms. 

Because St. Paul didn’t yet have access to testing, when Pettigrew called the hospital, she was told not to come in, that there was nothing they could do.

“They said, ‘If you get to a point where you are having trouble breathing, give us a call’.”

She called the local clinic multiple times. “I remember reading about people saying, ‘My wife said she felt really bad and by the morning she was gone,’ and I think, God what if that’s me? They didn’t even say ‘take this or that.’ I was on my own to deal with it.”

Lisa called her daughter in and said, “OK, I have my funeral planned and my obituary written. This thing could go quickly, and I need you to know where everything is and I love you very much.”

Nancy Dean, 59, Apple Valley, Minnesota

Nancy Dean was hospitalized with COVID-19. Her husband was not allowed to visit her.

Nancy Dean had been admitted to the hospital multiple times since contracting the virus in early July, and she recalls feeling isolated and abandoned.

“At the beginning, I said, ‘You know…this isn’t that bad’…but then I realized this is some serious stuff. I had pneumonia…a cold pack behind my neck and under both of my armpits…I was sweating profusely and my gown was wet. Not once did anybody put me in a new gown.” Visits from family were prohibited, and when her family called, her husband, “who’s a pretty strong guy,” couldn’t make it through the call without crying.

Dean was sent home one morning before dawn, while still sick, after having been in the hospital for five days. When she was discharged, the nurse said, “We have to get you going. We have other people in the ER that need this bed.”

“So he wheels me out [and] places me in this outside foyer area…and leaves me there,” Dean recalls. “I was so sick at the time. And I sat in that wheelchair and bawled.”

Rochelle Riley, Director of Arts and Culture, Detroit, Michigan

“I lost eight people in a week. Eight friends,” Riley said, “So I was determined to do something that would honor the loved ones lost.” Riley, at the request of the mayor, planned a “memorable” funeral for 907 people. “The most amazing thing for me as I talked to families [was that I realized] they just wanted to talk to somebody about their family member. They didn’t have a chance to do a eulogy…[including] one woman who just wanted me to know about her husband because they’d been married for five decades and she just wanted me to know who he still is for her.”

Chef Dave Heide and his family. His restaurants are named for his children. He had to close one due to the pandemic
Credit Dave Heide

Dave Heide, Restaurant Owner/Chef, Madison, Wisconsin area

Because Dave Heide’s restaurants are named after his kids, the fear of shutting down in a difficult Covid economy hurt even more. Heide explained, “I’m not alone in being a restaurateur who works every single day from bleak until we fall asleep, and it is really hard to know there are people who have tons of resources and lots of money and are like, 'Ah other people are fine’.”

For Heide the struggle has been trying to hold on to Liliana’s and Charlie’s, named after his first two children, while opening a non-profit, pay-what-you-can restaurant, Little John’s, named after his youngest child.

Heide said, “There's no white knight coming, there's no PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money coming…we’re on our own, and it's up to everyone to just do our best to tough out the storm.”  

Jessica Vandyke, High School Teacher, Olney, Illinois

When Richland County High School students and staff learned they would not be coming back to in-person classes after spring break, everything changed for Vandyke and her colleagues. The online struggles began, the standards dropped, and teachers found themselves trying to contact students as late as 9:00 and 10:00 o’clock at night.

Vandyke explained that more than the inherent hassles of online learning, economic inequality presented an almost insurmountable barrier. “We are a rural community…we still have kids that don’t have internet access at home. We even have a teacher’s kid, as a matter of fact, [who lives] so far out in the country that the internet is so spotty, she has to come into town and sit in her vehicle and try and get her homework done.”

In addition, Vandyke says, many students aren’t applying themselves. “I just think everyone wants to get back to reality; we just want to get back.” 

Dr. Stacey Nye, clinical psychologist, explains why everyone classifies as a COVID-19 victim.
Credit Dr. Stacey Nye

Dr. Stacey Nye, Clinical Psychologist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Dr. Stacey Nye knows that everyone is a COVID victim, even those who haven’t gotten the virus. She herself was not allowed to see her mother who died this summer in a home for the elderly, and she knows similar experiences of grief are shared across the world.

Because these struggles are global, Nye describes them as oddly unifying and “fascinating,” adding, “When you stop and think about how small you are in the whole universe, you get a little existential weirded out; [this pandemic has] affected everyone. It’s not just happening in your neighborhood or in your state or even in just your country…in the middle of April, every single individual across the world was stuck in their house.”