A simple text on the morning of March 27 pulled Martha Nowatzki from her home in Luverne into a face-to-face battle with the coronavirus.
The text from her stepsister was about her father, John Feight, 93, who had been taken by ambulance to the hospital after suffering various health issues for the past five years.
A shelter-in-place order had just been issued by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, but travel was allowed to care for family members.
“The scientists were saying we had to stay away, and none of us kids wanted to be the one to bring them any illness,” Martha said. “I decided it was a big enough emergency that I needed to be there.”
Her father died 10 days later and later tested positive for COVID-19.
Off from work, Martha provided best help option
Nowatzki arrived in St. Louis Park March 27 just after closing her massage business with Salon 75.
“In the weeks before Gov. Walz made the executive order (to close non-essential businesses on March 17) I was busier than ever,” she said.
“I was becoming concerned because it is impossible to do massage from six feet away. I massaged people who were back from cruises and fun in the sun. I ran into older clients who pulled me in for close talking while I kept backing up and trying to stay away. I began to realize, as long as I am available, people didn’t seem to care about the risks to themselves or to others.”
Without her massage clients, Martha decided she could stay at her dad’s apartment to take over his care.
“When I got word that Dad was sick, I had to go,” she said. “My risks are relatively low in comparison (to other family members.)”
‘I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in’
John Feight, a Navy veteran, spent most of his career as an agricultural journalist, his last job with North Dakota State University in Fargo. He also had a passion for bird watching and was a lifelong member of the Audubon Society. He lost his first wife, Phyllis, to cancer when she was 53.
“My dad was a smart, funny, complicated man and a talented writer who loved my mom,” Martha said. “He remarried a year later because he was convinced he’d die without Phyl.”
Martha and her family would visit regularly. “Whenever I asked him how he was doing, his standard answer was ‘I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in,’” Martha said. “And he could name juncos, downy woodpeckers and chickadees almost to his last day.”
By March 27, however, John was still mostly unresponsive when she reached him at the hospital.
Tests showed no obvious diagnosis other than dehydration. After receiving fluids, he was allowed to go home March 29 primarily because Martha was available to assist in his care. Hospice services were quickly arranged to provide additional support.
As plans were made to bring John home, his second wife, Arlene, was experiencing COVID-like symptoms and reported a loss of taste. She had a slight fever, cough, chest tightness and extreme fatigue. She rested at home while Martha cared for her dad.
Soon after that, Martha too, began experiencing some of the same symptoms as her stepmom and dad.
“I was too busy trying to get Dad’s fever down and getting meds into him to pay too much attention to (my) low-grade temp,” she said.
Her temperature maxed out at 101.4 and she soon experienced a dry cough, slight chest tightness, gastrointestinal issues and extreme muscle weakness. A week later Martha lost her sense of taste.
“That was the weirdest — and fascinating thing,” she said. “I’ve never lost smell and taste before. And it was just GONE.”
As her COVID-19 symptoms came on, Martha celebrated her dad’s 94th birthday with an April 4 Zoom party with family members who shared bad jokes and limericks online.
“That was a last smile he managed as he seemed to respond to my brothers’ laughter,” Martha said.
John died April 6 surrounded by the music of his favorite singers, Billy Holiday, Etta James and Lena Horn, with his birds just outside the window.
A family service is planned for this summer, and his cremains share an urn with Martha’s mom.
The decision not to be tested
Martha and her stepmom were not tested for COVID-19, but her stepsister received one of the scarce tests in the Twin Cities on April 9. At the time only health care workers or relatives of health care workers were tested.
“She tested positive and was extremely fatigued, sick and scared,” Martha said. Her spouse also tested positive for the virus, as did John, who was tested postmortem. The state Department of Health confirmed the findings.
“There’s a slightly higher possibility of my getting tested but I’m less inclined to do it now,” Martha shared with friends on her April 9 social media post.
Consensus of the calls to the Luverne clinic was that Martha likely had COVID-19. She was told to quarantine for 14 days after her symptoms cleared and to stay where she was in St. Louis Park.
“It seemed stupid to drive home, potentially infect people on the way home, potentially expose my (husband) Chris once I got there, and leave my grieving stepmother alone throughout her quarantine,” Martha said.
“So I decided it didn’t matter enough to me to get the test.”
The quarantine was hard on Chris and their daughters, Kaia and Gretchen.
“My family was not able to help or see me in person to believe I wasn’t sicker than I was letting on,” Martha said. “I got a little irritated one day because all I wanted was to sleep and my husband wanted to Face Time and I could hardly hold the cell phone.”
On April 12 Martha shared with friends her sense of smell was returning and her fever was subsiding. Her 14-day quarantine ended Sunday when she returned to Luverne.
After-effects of experience with COVID-19
Martha admits she’ll need time to process the loss of her dad and her bout with the coronavirus.
“I can’t be angry that COVID took him quickly and mercifully,” she said. “But I am going to be unraveling the threads of all this for a long time.”
Only a small percentage of those afflicted with COVID-19 die, but Martha said each life affected has a ripple effect on others.
“I have zero regrets for going up there when I did, It is without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do — but also, also the very biggest gift. So many families are struggling with their people dying alone with COVID-19 but we got super lucky. Everything clicked into place to give him a relatively peaceful death in his own home.”