When Charlie Wachlin couldn’t speak for himself, his wife stepped in to fight for his life
The Wadena, Minnesota, man suffered a major setback when COVID-19 put him out of commission during last year's potato harvest.
WADENA, Minn. — Without an advocate at his side, fighting for his life when he couldn’t, Charlie Wachlin believes he would have died from adverse effects of COVID-19.
Death was absolutely at his door. According to his primary provider, his heart was shocked three different times as his body fought to survive without the help of machines. He was told he was on the brink of death on 12 occasions.
Wachlin's normally deep voice is much more quiet than it was last year as he continues therapy four days a week at Wadena’s Tri-County Health Care. He is slower moving, a change of pace for the enduro racer and hard-working manager of Wadena’s RDO potato farm. He’s working to rebuild his body to what it was before it basically shut down last October.
“I went from perfect almost, to almost dead,” Wachlin said of his body’s response to getting the virus.
Wachlin contracted COVID-19 in September and was admitted to Lakewood Health System in Staples, Minnesota, with COVID pneumonia on Oct. 2. The next day he was airlifted to Sanford Fargo’s ICU with respiratory failure. He ended up spending 122 days away from home struggling to regain enough strength to breathe, talk, walk and do all the things he’s done as a husband, father, grandpa and as leader in his work place.
“My lung capacity may never be what it was,” Wachlin said from his home south of Wadena. Even so, he’s now able to be back to work and back home with his family. The illness and restrictions in place kept him separated from most of his family for nearly five months.
At the time of contracting COVID, his family had been sick, with mostly mild symptoms. Wachlin wasn’t one to let a little cold keep him from getting the potato harvest complete. The fall is a time for all hands on deck as the largest labor force of the potato season comes together to get the crop from the fields.
But when the symptoms persisted and pneumonia set in, things shifted drastically. He felt ill only for about four days, he said. In the intensive care unit, it became so bad that Wachlin’s wife Diane was asked about Charlie’s directives and had a doctor tell her there was nothing more they could do after Charlie had shown no improvement for weeks.
She was adamant that there must be something to do. She did what she could, including calling around for other options. She spent long days encouraging Charlie and at times, frustratingly pushing him to keep fighting. She missed just five days at his side throughout the ordeal, only to allow others to stop by and spend time with Charlie.
“Without her they probably would have shut the machines off,” Charlie said.
That’s just what one doctor suggested in November, that Charlie’s ventilator be stopped.
Some said it wasn’t worth fighting. Some said if he did make it, he’d be on oxygen in a nursing home the rest of his life. his condition was so bad he couldn’t be transported elsewhere, so Diane fought to get second opinions and find out what else they could do.
“I’m like, you gotta try something, what do we have to lose? You’re already telling me we should shut the machines off,” she recalled saying to hospital staff during their ICU stay.
Diane said his body was fighting the oxygen machine and he contracted pneumonia three times during the ordeal. After some adjustments to the ventilation machine, he showed signs of improvement.
When Charlie came around, he had no idea he'd been out of a conscious state for a couple months. It was a lot to take in. Cognitively, he was in good shape, but his body was extremely weak and numb.
It took some threats of finger nail painting, poking and prodding and no more back rubs to get Charlie to do some things he didn’t want to do, according to Diane.
She’d been trying to get a good reaction out of him for many days and it wasn’t until he welcomed her with “kissy lips” that she felt he’d finally made a turn for the better. It was a moment they both treasure.
Even with his spirits lifted, it would be a long road ahead for Charlie. He had been stationary so long he’d lost the feeling in his legs and had to build up strength to walk again. Through physical therapy, it was pain in his extremities that gave him the feeling that he was gradually getting his feeling back. Toe-by-toe, he started to make small movements again. After starting physical therapy in January, Charlie still had a brace for his drop foot in April, but other than the occasional use of a cane, he was able to get around well and was happy to be on his way to full recovery.
Charlie’s message to others out there is simple but difficult: Keep fighting and get yourself an advocate.