WORTHINGTON — Worthington’s Merle Klosterbuer is one of 27 Nobles County residents to die from complications of COVID-19. He’s one of more than 2,800 residents of the county to test positive for the novel coronavirus since it reached southwest Minnesota in mid-March.
Merle Klosterbuer is also more than a number.
He was a people person who, at 73, had never considered retirement. He spent his career as a carpenter, working for Johnson Builders and Bruce Campbell Construction locally before starting his own business in 1984. For the past four or five years, he did small jobs and fixed garage doors.
“He had to be out amongst people,” said his wife, Joyce. The two celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary in July, and have two sons — Chad of Little Rock, Iowa, and Jason of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Since the dawn of COVID-19, following guidelines to protect his health and the health of others was important to Merle. Staying confined to the house, however, was daunting.
“He would take off in the pickup and go for rides quite often because he just felt claustrophobic being in the house all of the time,” Joyce shared.
When he shopped, he was careful not to go into a store if there were more than 10 cars in the parking lot. He wore his mask everywhere he went, and kept a bottle of hand sanitizer in the truck. Sanitizer was the first thing he reached for when he returned to the truck, and he’d wash his hands as soon as he got home.
And yet, Merle contracted COVID-19.
While Joyce doesn’t know when or where he was exposed to the virus, she mentioned a rummage sale they hosted at the Nobles County Fairgrounds in late September. Merle had requested everyone who stopped to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer.
“I don’t know if he caught it there, but there were some people that got really ticked off at him when he asked if they would wear a mask,” Joyce said. “Several even left.”
Days later, the couple was on their way to a funeral in Chandler when Merle complained that the bean dust hanging in the air was bothering him.
As Joyce recalled the timeline, he then thought he had a cold. Merle went from having cold symptoms to feeling weak. Food no longer tasted good, and he wouldn’t eat.
Merle’s weakness worsened, and on Oct. 8, Joyce took him to the clinic. Medical personnel immediately said it sounded like he may have COVID.
In an exam room, Merle’s oxygen level registered 81% — low enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.
What bothers Joyce to this day is the fact that her husband was wheeled down a back hallway to the ER, while she was directed to take another route. When she reached the ER, she was told she couldn’t see Merle because “he might have COVID.”
“I had been with him (for) how long? I couldn’t even go hug him or say goodbye,” she said with a sob.
Instead, Joyce was told to sit in her car while medical staff worked on her husband. A couple of hours later, once he stabilized, she was still not allowed in.
“I said, ‘Well, tell him I love him then,’” she continued tearfully. “I could not see him again.”
Merle was transported that same day to Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls. Visitors are not allowed to visit COVID-19 patients unless death is imminent.
In the first four or five days of his hospitalization, Merle and Joyce visited via phone a couple of times. He was so weak that it was difficult for him to talk, however, and she was in a mandatory 14-day quarantine at home. Joyce was tested for the virus the day after Merle was hospitalized, but was negative.
By day five or six — the days were a blur for Joyce — the family made the decision to place him on a ventilator. Son Chad Facetimed with his dad briefly, and Joyce spoke with Merle over the phone.
“He said, ‘I love you, Joyce. Pray for me.’”
Those were the last words she’d ever hear him speak.
Merle remained on a ventilator for about 12 days, until his death on Oct. 26. Days prior, his heart began acting up and the family was notified of his struggles.
Being on a ventilator, COVID-19 patients are required to lay on their stomach for 16 hours per day. It helps the patient clear their lungs, Joyce was told. She knew that was something Merle was struggling with. Before the ventilator, he could lay on his stomach for four or five hours a day.
“If I could have just been there to rub his back or something,” Joyce said, shedding more tears. “I don’t think he ever had a good day — it was always downhill just a little bit.”
On Oct. 26, the hospital called to say Merle’s kidneys had quit working and “everything was going wacko,” Joyce said. Chad took her to the hospital, but he wasn’t allowed to stay. As he returned to his vehicle, Joyce went in to see Merle. He was still on the ventilator, but the plan was to remove it.
“He only lasted two to five minutes after the ventilator was unhooked,” she said. “The ventilator was keeping him alive.”
As Joyce stood at his bedside, singing “Lead Me Gently Home, Father,” Merle took his last breath.
The funeral took place a week later, due in part to Jason testing positive for COVID. While he had short-lived, mild symptoms, he was quarantined.
If being separated from one’s spouse during illness isn’t difficult enough, grieving with family and friends — while social distancing — added to the strain.
“I will say I did hug a couple of people, but most people stayed back,” Joyce said. “It was very hard for me because I wanted to just let them hug me and I wanted to hug them, but I couldn’t.”
As hard as it is to lose someone, losing a loved one during a global pandemic seems to compound the loss.
Joyce agreed to share her family’s story because she wants people to wear their mask, to use hand sanitizer and to wash their hands.
“You may not know you have it, and you have to watch out for the people that are vulnerable,” she said. “Merle had sleep apnea, so his lungs were weaker. He got pneumonia because his lungs were weaker.
“You just don’t know what the other person has and how it will affect them.”