WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County Commissioner Rollie Nissen admits he was a bit of a COVID skeptic. That all changed when he and his wife, Glenda, came down with the disease around Thanksgiving. It is an infection Nissen believes would have killed him if it wasn't for his daughter's attention.
"She is a registered nurse luckily, or I probably wouldn't be here," Nissen said.
Nissen would end up spending more than two weeks in the hospital, some of it in intensive care as his oxygen levels fell dangerously low. His wife, who had a milder infection, also spent five days in the hospital.
The first sign that something wasn't right occurred on Thanksgiving Day, as the Nissens sat down to dinner. They weren't necessarily feeling ill, but there was a feeling of being off, Nissen said.
"We didn't eat our food like we usually do," Nissen said. "It didn't really excite me."
The next day other symptoms arose and the couple went to get tested. The results came back a few days later.
"Sure enough we had it," Nissen said. He was the second Kandiyohi County Commissioner to get sick with COVID-19. Former Commissioner Harlan Madsen was infected and was ill for several weeks in September.
The Nissens' illnesses would begin to take a bad turn soon after. Nissen said things started to get foggy for him after they went to get tested. While he attended the Dec. 1 County Board meeting remotely, his daughter later told him that during those early days of his illness, he would be talking funny, confused and even seeing things.
"I didn't know I was that sick," Nissen said. "I don't remember any of that."
A few days later, on Dec. 4, Nissen was taken by ambulance to Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital. His wife was later taken to a hospital in Sauk Centre.
Nissen spent approximately 15 days in the hospital, hooked up to oxygen, as he was treated for the disease. Most of the time he was bedridden. Thankfully by Dec. 15, the day of the county's 150th birthday and a County Board meeting day, Nissen was able to again attend remotely, from his hospital room.
"The worst I probably looked was when I called in from the hospital. I wanted to be part of that so much, because of my dual roles of being a county commissioner and chairman of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society," Nissen said. "I couldn't have done that the week before. I didn't know who I was half the time."
Once he started to improve, Nissen began physical therapy, slowly at first in bed, to begin rebuilding his physical stamina. A physical therapist would visit his hospital room. Those visits, as well as nurse visits, have continued at his home while he and his wife continue to recover.
"I was really below my regular level of activity," at the start of the therapy, Nissen said. As the days have passed, he is regaining his strength.
Nissen has also improved enough that he might be able to stop using supplemental oxygen. Since his hospital discharge, Nissen has had to have an oxygen tank with him at all times. He has to check his oxygen levels every few hours, and if he is below a certain level, he must use the tank.
"I feel like I'm tied to a tree," Nissen said.
During his first few physical therapist appointments, he wasn't able to get through them without the use of the oxygen tank. At his most recent one late last week, he didn't have to use it at all. Once he no longer has to use the tank, Nissen will be able to return to his day job as a bus driver.
"I think I'm getting out of this," Nissen said.
He greatly appreciates all the help and care he and his wife received throughout their illness.
"I thank all the people who took care of me at the hospital," Nissen said. "They were looking out for my best interest."
Where the Nissens picked up the virus is unknown. Nissen said they were always careful about wearing masks when out in public. They did visit a restaurant a few times in November, including right before they were shut down for in-person dining by Gov. Tim Walz.
"I could have picked it up in mid-November," Nissen said.
If Nissen has any advice for people, it is to take COVID-19 seriously.
"If you do the math, not everybody is going to get sick and you start thinking 'well it is not going to happen to me.' But it does, and when it does happen to you, it is serious," Nissen said. "Some of my friends did not make it through."
He asks people to follow the public health recommendations, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
"The masks are frustrating, and it is being told what to do — we all have trouble with that. But you don't want to catch this," Nissen said. "Some of the things they are telling us to do are good for us."
Nissen is also telling people they should get the vaccine once it is available to them. He understands some of the concerns behind how quickly the vaccines were created, but he also said they have been well-tested.
"It is certainly better than getting this," Nissen said. "When the vaccine is available, especially if you have other issues, get yourself taken care of."