WHITEHALL, Ind. (AP) — Back home after two months away battling COVID-19, Jeri Hall wanted to get out to the barn to check on the farm animals left behind when she drove herself to Monroe Hospital on March 22, struggling to breathe.
She spent 40 days — many of them near death — hospitalized, then another three weeks at a rehabilitation center. Her children couldn’t visit in person, but 28-year-old Ronnie Sue Robinson kept vigil outside her mom’s hospital window, willing her to hang on.
Hall doesn’t clearly remember any of her time in the hospital. She wasn’t aware of Ronnie Sue’s visits or her efforts to keep the farm going and the mortgage paid. She had no idea how sick she was, with just a 1% chance of surviving before she unexpectedly started to get better.
It was the last week of May when the 49-year-old Owen County woman tossed her walker aside and got back to life on the farm. She corralled one of her 25 goats to milk, then realized, again, how the virus likely will always affect her.
After months of physical therapy, her left hand is still weak and numb. She can’t milk the goats and has let their milk supply go dry. Before COVID-19, she made the milk into soap.
“I thought I would use the milking as part of my therapy,” she said, laughing. “But there was no way.”
It’s early on a Thursday morning, humid and hot. Hall wears jeans, a T-shirt from the 1986 Prison Rodeo and 20-year-old cowboy boots with holes worn through the leather. Her hair, cut short now, has been falling out in clumps throughout her recovery.
Rhinestone tiara earrings made by her cousin dangle toward her shoulders, a throwback gift to Hall being crowned the Indiana High School Rodeo Queen in 1987.
She savors a cup of coffee, having already fed the animals. She relaxes in a folding canvas chair right next to the fenced corral. The coronavirus sapped her of energy, but it’s coming slowly back.
Two dozen ornery goats butt heads, clamber about and shove their necks through the fence to be petted. One knocks over the cup of coffee. Hall shrugs, smiles, picks it up.
Five horses graze in the pasture. Chickens run amok.
A 350-pound pet pig named Wilbur flops onto his fat side. Giant Bulgarian mountain dogs, Sylvia and Ivan, vie for attention.
For Hall, this is the start of a glorious day on her 40-acre farm. She breathes in the fresh air, mingled with the aromas of manure, damp hay and matted dog fur, reveling in the simple things that anchor her life.
But there’s something missing. Someone.
Hall is not accustomed to being here alone. The beauty of the day is all so bittersweet.
On Feb. 25, her husband of 10 years died. Keith Hall was repairing a radiator on an old farm dump truck in their garage when he collapsed and stopped breathing.
His wife had tended the animals and gone up to the house after work that Thursday to cook supper — it was bourbon bratwursts, Jeri Hall recalled.
COVID-19 has left her with some short-term memory loss, but she remembers that night in vivid detail.
“I’d seen him at 6, then I changed clothes and went out to feed. When he didn’t come in, I went out and found him face-down there in front of the truck, which was running. He was dead,” she said.
“I turned him over and started CPR, and I had to run back to the house to get my phone to call 911. I kept doing CPR till the ambulance got here in about a half hour.”
Keith Hall had been to see a doctor earlier that day and was prescribed antibiotics, steroids and a syrup to treat a nasty cough that had lingered for three weeks.
“The doctor told him his lungs sounded a little wet, but that it wasn’t serious,” Hall said. “He never got a chance to take his meds.”
An autopsy concluded that Hall, who had just turned 50, died from a heart attack and carbon monoxide poisoning, his wife said.
They had been high school sweethearts, then broke up and married other people. They reunited in 2005, and she moved across the ridge to his farm.
A service celebrating his life was postponed when the state pandemic shutdown happened. It was to have been held the day his wife tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to Monroe Hospital.
Hall and others are left wondering if the coronavirus, at that point still not health issue in Indiana, may have contributed to his death?
“Nobody knows,” Hall said.
State health department officials initially said Indiana’s first COVID-19 death was March 16, then dialed the date back to March 10, when two Hoosiers died from the virus.
“I miss my husband,” she said. “My asthma was a pre-existing condition that made the COVID worse, but I think the grief I was going through affected it more.”
She won’t dwell on speculation, but instead is trying to keep the farm chores up, doing her husband’s as well as her own.
“Can I do all of this, from a medical standpoint? Probably not,” she said. “But from my standpoint, yes, I can. I can’t focus on what might have been. I have to move forward.”
When Dr. Eric Trueblood took Hall off a ventilator April 16, she could barely speak, but had one thing to say: “Get me out of here.”
Trueblood said Hall’s faith in God and life and her family support helped her fight to stay alive. The lung specialist said he used every medical trick up his sleeve to save her during the early weeks of the pandemic when treatment options were few and sometimes experimental.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone with acute respiratory distress syndrome this bad who went on and survived it,” he said when Hall was wheeled out of the hospital the afternoon of May 1.
She remembers that day.
“Everything before that is a blur,” she said. “Then there I was, out in the sunshine. I had the guys pushing the gurney stop and let me just feel the sun.”
Hall is back to work as a surgical technician in Bloomington three days a week. She has plans to build up her strength and the farm by increasing her meat goat herd.
“I went from being able to do anything to not being able to feed myself. I couldn’t even sign my name,” Hall said. “So, I know about the things we take for granted every day. I’m looking ahead, not giving up, not letting it win. That’s for sure. Keith would be saying. ‘Hey, buck up.’ So, I am.”
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