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:

'This is Lisa Pettigrew and I’m 56 years old and I live in St. Paul, Minnesota. I experienced the early days of COVID with the illness and um I just felt very alone."

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

Lisa is a COVID-19 victim who contracted the virus and fought through uniquely Midwestern struggles at the beginning of the pandemic: Confusion, distorted facts on social media and a lack of testing availability. She began with through her thoughts and experience in early March when first hearing of the virus.


"My daughter was still in New York at the time at college and she was going to come home for spring break.

Then you start hearing New York hot spot, Washington hot spot, nothing happening in the midwest and you’re, you know, you’re sort of naively thinking well maybe it just won’t come here. You know, maybe the few planes that brought people into these coastal areas and we are just going to be lucky and isolated and we won’t really have to worry about it."

She believes she knows how she contracted the virus


"Well went to New York, because by that time it was clear that my daughter’s school was not going to stay open so I said to her dad, he and I are divorced, but I said, we’re going to go get her. And she was clearly not feeling well and then we get in a car to drive for a day and a half altogether.

And she is just in the back seat shivering. By evening. that’s when fever and chills hit for me."


"And so I’m thinking OK, we all got her cold. 'Cause you don’t want to think you got it. And I’m thinking the chances are pretty slim that we would get it - it’s so early in it and yes we went to New York, and yes we went to the hotspot, and if anybody asked us we would be like, 'Oh check.'" 

Pettigrew chuckles at her own ignorance early in the pandemic.

Despite exhibiting all of the classic symptoms, the St. Paul area didn't have access to testing this early on in the pandemic and; therefore, she was told not to come to the hospital.


"So, I think the second day in, when my fever was bad and my chills were bad, I just thought I’m going to call the clinic, just to let them know and to tell them, you know I was just in New York. right next to where this thing was happening. And they’re saying 'Well, you know, just stay home, there’s nothing we can do, you can’t be tested, you have to be seriously ill and need hospitalization. If you get to a point where you are having trouble breathing give us a call.' Well, I’m thinking- you know you’re thinking, 'Well I don’t want it to get that bad. I don’t want to wait that long.'” 

Unable to get a test, see a doctor or even go to the pharmacy, Lisa was left to have a difficult conversation with her daughter:


"I set everything up and I told her and I said ok, I even have my funeral planned and all this stuff and my obituary written. And I said here it all is, I feel pretty crappy tonight, this thing could go quickly, and I need you to know where everything is and I love you very much. There were a couple of nights in a row like that. Where I was kind of saying this like, I feel really bad and remember reading about people saying 'Oh, you know, my wife said she felt really bad and by the morning she was gone.' And I think, God what if that’s me?"

Pettigrew continued, "And I called the clinic again and It seems like every time I called the clinic, they kind of had a reason for what I had. Finally, the task force said OK yes, testing is available, antibody testing is available. So I didn’t get my antibody test until June. So then I felt kind of vindicated I wasn’t crazy I wasn’t making this up. My purple fingertips weren’t broken blood vessels.

"They didn’t even say oh, take this or tha. t I was on my own to deal with it...partly because they couldn’t confirm that that’s what I had."

Nancy Dean:

"Nancy Dean, I live in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and I’m 59 years old."

Nancy has been admitted to the hospital multiple times since contracting the virus in early July. She says she felt isolated and abandoned even from inside the ER.

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


"At the beginning,  I actually said, you know what, this isn’t that bad. Um, I’m kind of glad that I got it and now this is all it is and I don’t have to be as fearful.  And then as the days went on and more symptoms came up then I realized,  "Oh dear, this is some serious stuff.'”

Dean continued, "And then by..day 8, I was at the doctor's and then it was detected that I had pneumonia. It was really just trying to keep my temperature down. I remember one time, medicine wasn’t doing it, so we had a cold pack behind my neck and under both of my armpits. And um..and I just remember just sweating profusely and when I looked back at that, of how many times I was sweating profusely and how my gown was just wet. Not once did anybody put me in a new gown."

Dean said, "And then you know was in the hospital for five days. And I know without family being able to visit, it was really really tough on my family. A few times when my husband called, who’s a pretty strong guy, he couldn’t make it through the phone call without crying. But, at 4:30 in the morning they said, you know, we are sending you home. And the hospital I went to is at least 30 minutes from my house."

Dean continued, "So anyway, then the nurse came in and he started getting me ready and I said well the doctor said I could stay here, in this room until my ride got here, and he said no we have to get you going we have other people in the ER (emergency room) that need this bed, so he wheels me out, he places me like in this outside-like foyer area and just puts me in park and then leaves me there, and I was so sick still at this time. And- I sat in that wheelchair and I balled. That whole experience in the ER was really awful.

Rochelle Riley hasn't contracted the virus. But in her role as Detroit’s Director of Arts and Culture, she found herself experiencing the grief of an entire city as she planned the nation's first citywidee memorial event for COVID victims in August. Among those memorialized were some of her close friends.


"I lost eight people in a week. Eight friends."

She used her loss as fuel to do the strenuous work of planning the memorial at Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River just north of downtown.

Rochelle Riley:

"I was determined to do something that would honor the loved ones that we’ve lost, provide honor and closure for the families and do what the mayor told me to do which was to make sure it was memorable. What I did was I planned a funeral, but I planned a funeral for 907 people the way I would plan it for one person."

She noted that while speaking with the victims’ families she realized how much they simply wanted to talk about their lost ones. She described these conversations as one of the most memorable parts of the process


"The most amazing thing for me as I talked to families I realized that in many cases they just wanted to talk to somebody about their family member. They didn’t have a chance to do a eulogy or to say those things that they wanted people to know. I had a conversation with a woman who just wanted me to know about her husband because they’d been married for like 5 decades and she just wanted me to know who he still is for her.

The pandemic has claimed many types of victims. Alongside those who suffered the symptoms and who lost their loved ones are the men and women to have lost their livelihoods. I spoke to Chef Dave Heide who has worked in the restaurant industry for over twenty years. Due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Heide was forced to close the doors of one of his restaurants.

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

"It was really tough, you know, my restaurants are named after my kids,  so Liliana’s is named after my kiddo Liliana, and then we opened Charlie’s on Main in Oregon, Wisconsin and that was named after my son Charlie and then we have a third kiddo so we are opening a non-profit, pay-what-you-can restaurant named for my son John called Little John's. You know I think because our restaurants are named after our kids it definitely hurts even more you know to have to close one of them

Heide continued, "The most difficult part is there was a possibility to maybe save our restaurant because 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.' That's been really tough, seeing people who are not understanding the people who are losing everything. I think there is a lot of anger. You know, denial. I mean go through every single stage and I think I’ve hit it all. I think I’m at the point of acceptance. There's no white knight coming,  there's no PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money coming. It's just, its' we’re on our own and it's up to everyone to just do our best to tough out the storm. One of the things I’ve told everyone I know is 'Pick the three restaurants you want to be here when this is all over and just eat there.' Since the government isn’t going to help the only way we’re going to make it is with customer support."

Jessica Vandyke:

"My name is Jessica Vandyke and this is my twenty-first year teaching at Richland County High School in Olney, Illinois.

Jessica recalled back in March when high school teachers across the nation were told to pack their things and take their teaching to Zoom.

"I think it was a Thursday because we were getting ready to have a spring break and one of my coworkers said, 'I bet we don’t come back.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' and sure enough, we got the message. It was really hard for the kids, they did not adjust well at all. The kids were really, really struggling to get homework done. I was with kids you know, nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night still trying to make contact with kids because they weren’t getting their work done. So that was a real struggle. Wwe also had the the issue where - at the end when all was said and done if you had a thirty percent you passed, which was a very low standard. So here we are several months later and we have kids taking class and some of them and I think they think that standard is still there so they’re not applying themselves like they should.

Vandyke explained that it's more than the hassle of online learning that puts some students at a disadvantage - it's economic inequality.


"We are a rural community, the majority of our community is low income so that really plays a role with it. Right now, we still have kids that don’t have internet access at home. We even have a teacher’s kid as a matter of fact, because they live so far out in the country that the internet is so spotty, she has to come into town and work in her vehicle and try and get her homework done.

Vandyke said it is just time for things to get back to normal.


"I just think everyone wants to get back to reality and back to how it was whether it was good or bad before whatever we just want to get back."

Clinical psychologist Dr. Stacey Nye is the director of the psychology clinic at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Nye emphasized the peculiar and extraordinary idea that the global nature of the pandemic should be, oddly, unifying.

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

Stacey Nye:

"We’re all COVID victims even those who haven't gotten the virus. We've all been affected by it in some way or another.You know, I lost my mom this summer, not from COVID, she was in an elderly home and because of that I wasn't able to see her.You know COVID robbed me of that, you know, being able to be with her. So I’m sure everyone you’ve talked to has a story like that or worse

Nye coninued, "I think that fact that this is global is very fascinating. It’s not just happening in your neighborhood or in your state or even in just your country. To think that in the middle of April, every single individual across the world was stuck in their house. This really fascinated me and you think we are very much in our heads all the time and we’re very narcissistic and egocentric and we think about our little lives. But when you stop and think about how small you are in the whole universe, you know, you get a little existential weirded out this pandemic really affected EVERYONE."