NEW LONDON — Last summer John Dahl led a group of 10 Boy Scouts on a high-adventure, four-day hike in the California mountains.
Today he can barely walk 50 feet before he’s winded and has to sit down.
It’s a tough turn of events for the 49-year-old New London man who spent six days in May at the Carris Health — Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar with COVID-19.
“At 49 I feel fairly young. But it feels at times like I’m 80 years old,” Dahl said. “It’s hard to explain, but doing anything is hard.”
While hospitalized, Dahl said he was given oxygen — but was not on a ventilator — to help with his breathing. He was given morphine to ease the pain of piercing headaches that accompanied a fever, chest pains and deep cough.
“It felt like I was in a cloud,” he said.
Some days he slept 16 hours.
“Getting this is not a joke,” Dahl said. “It’s not just a common flu.”
Dahl said the medical staff at the hospital were “kind,” “upbeat” and were “always trying to make me feel good.” But — for their own protection — visitors were not allowed.
He said the “absolute loneliness” of being in a hospital room without being able to see his wife, Cindy, or other family members, added a challenging layer to the chilling reality of the coronavirus.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” he said of being alone in the hospital. “It’s just devastating.”
He returned home on Mother’s Day.
“My mom and my wife said it was the best Mother’s Day they could possibly have,” said Dahl, who is slowly recovering and hopes to return to work in June and possibly lead another Boy Scout trip in late September to Isle Royale National Park.
Dahl is a busy man. He serves on the New London City Council and works with youth at Peace Lutheran Church and with Boy Scout Troop 228.
He also works at Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar, which was one of the key, early locations for COVID-19 cases in Kandiyohi County.
“Yep. I’m one of the people at Jennie-O that got sick,” he said.
His job involves packaging promotional products at the turkey processing plant.
Because of his work and involvement with so many people-based activities, Dahl said he kept himself informed about the coronavirus and knew what needed to be done to prevent the spread of the disease.
Shortly after a co-worker became ill, Dahl began wearing a mask even at home, slept on the couch, used a separate bathroom and didn’t get closer than six feet to his wife, son and 8-year-old granddaughter who all live in the same house.
Dahl, who has asthma, tested positive at about the time that Jennie-O temporarily suspended operations.
About a week later, Dahl said he started to “feel icky” and was having trouble breathing. He went to the hospital, where he was admitted with oxygen levels that were well below normal.
It took six days for his oxygen levels to stabilize enough to return home fever-free and without concern of being contagious.
“This is a nasty disease,” said Dahl. “Whether you’re healthy or not, we should really respect this.”
Nearly two weeks after leaving the hospital, Dahl is still moving slowly. It takes him about an hour to do 15 minutes' worth of dish washing and he uses a cane in case he gets weak while walking. A big sneeze can literally take his breath away.
He has started carving walking sticks from tree branches to fill the time in between frequent naps.
It comforts him to know that because he took precautions, no one else in his family got COVID-19.
Think of others first
Dahl said the response from his supervisors and co-workers at Jennie-O — whom he praised for the steps taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus — and the support of friends and family from his church and hometown community have helped him during his illness.
He said he missed one City Council meeting while in the hospital and that Mayor Bill Gossman —who is struggling with his own serious health issue not related to COVID-19 — called him to let him know the city was concerned about him and supported him.
That display of putting others first is the message Dahl said he hopes everyone considers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dahl said what made the Greatest Generation the truly greatest generation is that “they thought of others before themselves.”
Whether it’s social distancing, wearing masks or following guidelines while shopping at local stores, Dahl said it’s important for adults to be good role models with their words and actions so there can be another great generation.
He said it’s troubling to see social media posts from people who say it’s up to the individual to decide whether to risk their life by not following guidelines. Dahl said the person who takes that risk may unknowingly have the virus and spread it to 10 to 15 people.
He said everyone wants “normal life” back but that “we need to do what’s best for our community and not what’s necessarily best for ourselves.”