Betsy Bloch does not remember the end of 2020 or any part of January 2021.
She remembers getting in the ambulance on Christmas Eve. She remembers being flown the next day by helicopter to UnityPoint-Merit Hospital in Madison. She captured COVID-19 at the end of Wisconsin’s first major wave of new infections and spent January anesthetized in a medical coma.
Bloch was seven months pregnant when she was admitted to the hospital. Doctors needed medical anesthesia for her, and when they did, the baby’s vital signs began to crash, Bloch said. A few days after she was admitted, she gave birth to her third daughter, Jennifer, by caesarean section.
“I was told in February that I had had the baby,” she said. “They did not tell me which day.”
The hospital sent Jennifer, who was about two months premature, to the neonatal intensive care unit. Bloch’s condition worsened and her lungs did not supply her body with the oxygen she needed. Doctors would later learn that in addition to COVID-19, she had also developed blastomycosis, a rare fungal infection that attacks the lungs. This infection probably exacerbated the effects of COVID.
It would be months before Bloch came home, months before she held her daughter or even saw her in person instead of on FaceTime. And the life she came home to in Athens, a small town in central Wisconsin, was different. Her family was different and she was different. And she and her husband would spend the next year worrying about their medical bills and working on her recovery.
Wisconsin has confirmed nearly 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the March 2020 pandemic. More than 12,000 people are dead. But even among those who have recovered, the disease has left lasting scars. Some suffers from prolonged COVID; others have lost family membersjobs or social connections within the last two years.
Today the rate is for new COVID-19 infections in the state is as low as it was almost a year ago and is still declining. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control has in recent weeks released new, relaxed ones instructions on mask use and quarantine. In the words of a science writer, the pandemic is “inching towards an endemic. “
Bloch is also moving forward.
“I’m trying to create a new life and put this behind me,” she said in February.
But just as the pandemic has left small and large changes in Wisconsin, the nation and the world, Bloch’s case also shows how much a battle with a serious illness can affect a family’s life. There are things about her illness that she can put behind her. But there are also things in her life that never become the same.
An isolated, painful hospital stay, followed by a difficult return
From the time his wife was hospitalized, Justin Bloch tried to maintain a certain sense of normalcy for their two daughters, 5-year-old Amelia and 4-year-old Raina.
“I kept pushing every day,” Justin said. “Especially when the kids were nearby, just trying to be a base for them.”
They were not sure how Betsy got COVID-19. Fortunately, the rest of the family did not get sick at the same time.
Due to the hospital’s pandemic rules, he mostly visited Betsy virtually. In the first month, he saw her in person once while she was under anesthesia. After Jennifer was born, he could see his daughter at the NICU, but only under strict visiting protocols and only after a nearly three-hour drive from their central Wisconsin home to Madison.
For a time he could not work. In the morning, he took his daughters to day care and then spent the day waiting for medical news, talking to the family, and trying to distract himself.
For most of her time in the hospital, Betsy’s family, including Justin and her mother, Kim Engel, spent every day afraid of the call that would tell them she was dead. After Betsy had Jennifer, Betsy’s condition worsened. They told Engel that despite the risk of moving her, they would have to transfer Betsy from Merit to UW Health Hospital. Her oxygen levels dropped and they thought she might need an ECMO machine, a life support system that could essentially breathe for her. The pandemic had made ECMO machines sparse, but UW Health had one available to her.
“They said, ‘We can not wait until the last minute,'” Engel said. “She must be there if she is to be put on it.”
Doctors put her on the ECMO machine as soon as she was transferred.
Baby Jennifer was at the NICU in Madison for about three weeks, and was then transferred to a Wausau hospital for about a week, much closer to Justin. In late January, Jennifer was home.
For Betsy, however, the months that followed were the most painful in her life. She felt as if she was burning from within. The air conditioning in her hospital room was set at 55 degrees. Nurses brought her cooling blankets.
“They had six to seven ice packs put around me and they had to swap them out because they just wanted to melt,” she said.
She remembers a scan of her lungs that showed how exhausted they had become. If a scan of healthy lungs shows a large, dark cavity, she said, “mine was like looking through a cloud. It was just white.”
Her despair was not just physical. She felt an uncontrollable anxiety. She remembers seeing mortality on her phone from her hospital bed and thinking she probably would not leave it alive. She tried to kick the ECMO lines off. She said she tried to commit suicide when she felt she could not live through the pain.
But she did, and she began to get better. The lung scans began to show black pockets. She could breathe on her own.
“They still did not look normal, because they are not going to be,” she said. “My right lung is very, very scarred. And (the doctors) said it might not disappear.”
In March 2021, Betsy was released from the hospital and finally met her baby. It was not a made for TV moment. She had not been able to bond with her child at the hospital. And even though she was home, she was not close to healthy yet. She did not eat. Her thoughts turned to dark places.
“I would have panic attacks if the kids were getting too loud,” she said. “It sounds awful, but when you’re in a hospital room, with its beep and bop … you get used to it.”
Holding Jennifer felt wrong. Betsy burst into tears at the sight of Raina, who seemed to have grown into another child since Betsy was gone.
It took her months to attach to the baby. But again, she took small, step-by-step steps with the support of her family. She got better.
Family, community supported the Bloch family through ‘trial years’
In October, Engel organized a community gathering for Justin and Betsy. Church members, family friends and community members gathered in the town of Merrill for food, music and raffles, all to raise money for all the income they lost while Betsy was hospitalized and Justin was not working, as well as what they worried might be breaking medical bills.
Raina and Amelia played hopscotch and rolled down the hill outside City Hall. Jennifer slept in a baby carrier. The family said they felt supported by their community, who came together to show that they cared about what all the Blochs had been through.
“It’s been a trying year,” said Jerry Bloch, Betsy’s grandfather. “But it turned out for the better.”
By the fall, Betsy had been able to return to work at the Weinbrenner Shoe Company in Merrill. Justin, a former milk producer, had found a maintenance job in Athens’ school district. Angel took care of her own aging mother in Merrill and cared much less about her daughter.
In December, almost a full year after Betsy became ill, she was finally notified of her medical bills. Although she had been affected by both COVID-19 and blastomycosis, the state attributed her hospital stay to COVID-19 and wrote off the cost of her expenses: the helicopter; ambulances; the months spent connected to the ECMO machine. The family had almost gotten used to the underlying anxiety of worrying about whether they would spend the rest of their lives in medical debt.
For Betsy, it came with its own kind of sake for the sake of survivors to find out they owed nothing. The money from the fundraiser was still a lifeline, as her illness had meant months of lost income for the family and lots of debt. But after all the months of waiting for the next bill, she could hardly believe it when it did not come.
She knows she has changed since she got sick. It’s not just the tracheotomy, the inhaler she needs now. She is also quieter, she said, and a little more introverted.
“She did not come home the same person she was when she left,” Justin said. “You’re going through such a life problem, you’re not the same person anymore.”
But Betsy also said she feels lucky to have come out on the other side of her ordeal.
“I have a long way to go,” she said. “But I’m here.”
This week, WPR brings you stories that reflect the last two years of the pandemic. They include stories about masking, health professionals, education and work. For more stories on COVID-19, visit wpr.org/COVID.