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August 01, 2021

Veterinarian hospitalized 104 days because of COVID-19, complications

Former Minnesota VMA president says he’s lucky to be alive
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Dr. David Fell and his wife, Barb, took precautions when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, not seeing family or friends and wearing masks if they went out, which was rare.

But on Nov. 10, 2020, Dr. Fell started to have symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. So, the 74-year-old went to the local hospital in Jackson, Minnesota, and got tested for SARS-CoV-2. The results didn’t come back until three days later; he was positive. By Nov. 17, he couldn’t even make it from his house to the car, so his wife called an ambulance.

Dr. Fell and family
Dr. David Fell (far right) poses for a photo with his family at a Minnesota VMA conference. He and his wife, Barb (second from right), became sick with COVID-19 in mid-November last year. At one point, the staff at the Sanford USD Medical Center told Dr. Fell’s son, Brian (far left), and daughter, Liz (second from left), that they didn’t think he’d make it. (Courtesy of Dr. Fell)

Following testing and radiography at the emergency room, he was transferred from Sanford Jackson Medical Center to Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of South Dakota.

When he first saw the hospital staff members there, Dr. Fell said, “They looked like they had just landed on the moon,” with the hoods and dressing gowns they wore. “They changed with every patient they saw. They were really cautious. It’s the place to be when you’re sick.”

Little did Dr. Fell know that he wouldn’t get out of the hospital for about 3 1/2 months, with most of that time spent recuperating.

After graduation, Dr. Fell (Iowa State ’70) practiced in Iowa for three years before moving to Jackson, Minnesota. There, he joined Jackson Veterinary Clinic, which transitioned over the years from a large animal clinic to a small animal clinic. He retired in 2016.

Dr. Fell served on the AVMA Committee for Veterinary Technician Education and Activities from 2001-07 and was president of the Minnesota VMA in 2018.

Back in mid-October, Dr. Fell had surgery for prostate cancer. Just when he had recovered from the surgery, he contracted COVID-19.

Quick decision

Dr. Fell vividly recalls that on Dec. 1, 2020, the doctors told him to make a decision.

“I remember that I was quite sick, but I didn’t know I was that sick until they told me that my oxygen level was low,” Dr. Fell said. “I had two choices. They could take me to the intensive care unit and sedate and intubate me, with a 40% chance of saving me. Or they could continue what they were doing, and I was probably going to die that day. That’s when it hit me.

“I asked if I could call my wife, and they said: ‘You don’t have time. We need an answer now.’”

He agreed to go to the intensive care unit, where he was sedated and intubated for a week.

During that time, Barb also got sick with COVID-19. She stayed in a hospital in Worthington, Minnesota, for five days.

At one point, the staff at the Sanford USD Medical Center told Dr. Fell’s son, Brian, and daughter, Liz, that they didn’t think he’d make it.

Long road to recovery

When he woke up, Dr. Fell didn’t know where he was or what was happening.

“I asked if I was dead or alive, and they told me I was alive,” Dr. Fell said.

They also told him he received the same antibody treatment as had former President Donald Trump, who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 weeks earlier.

Rehabilitation proved difficult. He was transferred to the rehabilitation unit in Sioux Falls to recover. At first, he said, “When they tried to sit me up, I’d pass out. Those were the two big hurdles—getting me off oxygen and getting me to sit and stand up.”

The hospital wasn’t allowing visitors, so Dr. Fell spent his time reading books, writing emails, and virtually visiting with friends and family. A number of fellow veterinarians called to check on him.

He spent time every day sitting up. “When you’re sitting in that chair for two hours, twice a day, you get bored in a hurry. It sounds easy, but it wasn’t. It was an acclimation process, even getting used to sitting up,” he said.

On Christmas, Dr. Fell visited virtually with his family members, who were all at his daughter’s house, so he could watch them open presents.

“That was tough, but I made it,” he said, adding that he had never been away from his wife for this long during their more than 50 years of marriage.

A low point came when he developed a cyst on his lumbar vertebrae. It was so painful he couldn’t roll on his side or move. The doctors drained and cultured the cyst. Vancomycin was one of the few drugs that successfully treated it.

After spending 72 days in Sioux Falls and receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, he was transferred back to Sanford Jackson Medical Center.

Dr. Fell relearned how to get up and down steps, dress himself, and retrieve items from cabinets, which he practiced in the hospital’s conference room. A physical therapist worked with him five days a week, and an occupational therapist worked with him four days a week. He walked the halls with the nursing staff on weekends.

Everyone encouraged him, telling him if he couldn’t do something today, maybe he could tomorrow. “And sooner or later they were right. I could,” he said.

Toward the end, his wife would drive into the ambulance bay, and he worked on getting in and out of the car.

Aftermath

Dr. Fell finally went home on March 1. He slept eight to 10 hours a night and napped about three times a day. He was exhausted much of the time.

“I pretty much got myself weaned off those (naps) but still have fatigue and have a struggle with stamina. But I’m fortunate. A: I’m alive. And B: I’m not on oxygen like I know some people still are,” he said. He doesn’t use a walker or cane anymore, although he does have some short-term memory loss and coughs more than he used to.

He still doesn’t know how he got COVID-19, but that doesn’t matter at this point.

“There’s a lot of people praying for me, which made me feel better they cared enough to do that,” Dr. Fell said. “I’m just extremely grateful to the three hospitals and their staff for taking care of me. There was a time when they told my children they didn’t think they could save me. Here I am. I’m feeling very grateful and happy that I’m here.”

The Fells have had friends stop by to visit, but they are still cautious, making sure to observe social distancing. They’re getting out more, seeing their four grandchildren, who range in age from 6-13. They’ve missed dance and piano recitals as well as basketball games and karate performance tests.

“I know of some individuals who are worse off than I am,” Dr. Fell said. He considers himself lucky to do things he used to not like, such as household chores.

His wife had surgery on a rotator cuff in May, so after her taking care of him for his first two months home, he was taking care of her. That lasted until early June, when he started radiation therapy for eight weeks to get rid of some remaining prostate cancer cells.

“Getting old is not for sissies. That is so true,” he said. “You just have to take one thing at a time. But I feel good. I can’t do much more than walk across the house before I have to sit and rest, but it’s like I have a new life.”