When Wesley Benjamin, 63, died on Oct. 13, he became Hubbard County’s second COVID-19 fatality.

As of Thursday, Oct. 29, the county has had 434 confirmed cases and four deaths of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics.

Benjamin’s sister, Diane Gengler of Slayton, opened up about her family’s loss.

A fighter

To start, she said, Benjamin was in a high-risk category for contracting a severe form of COVID-19.

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“Twelve years ago, he had gotten a liver transplant,” said Gengler. “And he was doing well, but he was taking those anti-rejection medications, which makes your immune system go down. And then, from the liver transplant, he became diabetic. So, he did have underlying conditions that seem to mean people that get this get it hard.”

Gengler said family members were concerned about Benjamin continuing to frequent restaurants and bars, even while wearing masks and trying to stay socially distanced.

“I think he just was the unfortunate one,” she said. “It was sad because he was unfortunate before when he got hepatitis C. He had no idea where he got it from. I think he might have had it since he was a child. He really fought for his life, and was so happy that he was able to get that liver. And now this.”

Those who knew Benjamin well, she said, “knew how hard he fought to save his life, … only to have his life taken by a virus! And he was a fighter. If it can take him, it can take anyone.”

Think about others

Gengler said her family was happy to spend 12 more years with Benjamin after so nearly losing him to liver disease. But they are less than happy about the possibility that casual attitudes toward COVID-19 may have cost him his life.

“I know a lot of people go – this is what they say – ‘Oh, well they got underlying conditions. So, that doesn’t affect me,’” she said. “People that were going out to the bar, did they realize that maybe they were killing someone?”

Two bars in the Park Rapids area were temporarily closed this week due to coronavirus outbreaks. Gengler thinks her brother was at one of those bars the night 10 other people who were there became infected.

“I just think people, when they don’t wear their masks, even if they think they’re not at risk, they have to think about the other people they might be killing by not wearing their mask,” she said. “The younger kids are off, still going to weddings and bars. They just don’t realize, it’s not just them. They just can’t get it. And maybe I wouldn’t have gotten it either when I was that age. Because they think they’re not going to get hurt. They might not get hurt. But their parents might get hurt, and their grandparents.”

With a laugh, Gengler added, “I don’t know. People are going to do what they want to do. Our country is so split. Like, you’ve got scientists saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ And you’ve got our government saying, ‘No, you don’t need to do that.’

“How can you have a split country? And how much effort, really, is it, to wear a mask? At least you can say, ‘I wore a mask and I tried.’ I guess people will believe what they want to believe, but when they start losing their family, they’ll maybe think a little differently.”

Dying alone

Gengler wasn’t present at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo to witness her brother’s final three weeks of life, but she said, “I can tell you that it was horrible, being up in the hospital alone and not having anybody up there with you.

“He had no advocates. There was nobody in the room, watching and knowing what he was doing. He couldn’t talk very well, so we couldn’t really call him very much. He tried to text, but he got so tired.”

She spoke to him when he first went into the hospital, and he said he was fine, she said. “He wasn’t short of breath or anything. Two days later, they had him on this PAP (positive airway pressure) machine of some sort. It was very, very uncomfortable, and he couldn’t sleep at night, and then they took him off that and they put him on really high oxygen.”

Diane said that after Wesley’s death, she asked his doctor, “Why wasn’t he on a respirator?” And the doctor told her, “Because he was holding his own on the oxygen.”

According to what medical staff told her, a nurse came into Benjamin’s room the morning of Oct. 13 and saw something was wrong.

“He wasn’t looking very good. I think he was very upset,” said Gengler. “The nurse held his hand and said, ‘We’re going to get things all worked out here, Wes. Things are going to get better.’ And Wes said, ‘OK.’”

The nurse left the room to get medication, and when he came back a few minutes later, Benjamin’s heart had stopped beating.

“They did CPR for 15 minutes on him,” said Gengler. “They got him back.”

Hospital staff and family members conferred about what to do if Wesley’s heart stopped again, whether to resuscitate him. No one knew how much damage his brain had suffered while deprived of oxygen.

“They couldn’t move him. They couldn’t do anything because he was in such bad shape,” she said. “So, we told them, yes, resuscitate him if he doesn’t have neurological damage. But it wasn’t too long after that, they called and said his organs were shutting down. So, they put him on life support, so his son (Clayton, 27) and his girlfriend could go up to see him in the hospital.”

Gengler’s voice filled with emotion as she considered “what Wes went through. It is really hurtful to know we couldn’t be there with him, to try to guide him. He had nobody there. That’s the very worst part. He just loved people so much.”

Goodbyes

After saying their goodbyes, Wesley’s last two visitors went into a two-week quarantine. A private funeral service was held this week, after their quarantine ended.

Planning a funeral during COVID-19 proved challenging. Gengler said their funeral director had never buried a COVID patient before, and he had to look up Centers for Disease Control guidelines for preparing the body.

“When Wes was going to have his liver transplant, and we didn’t know if he was going to make it through or not, he had said just the traditional-type funeral,” said Gengler. “When we started thinking about it, how can we have a traditional-type funeral with COVID all over?”

She said the family decided to have a family-only service at the church and graveside, and to try to post a video online. Some family members also considered meeting with friends for a meal afterward.

“But we don’t even know if we should be together and have food anywhere, with our family,” she said, noting that some family members are also at high risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Gengler admitted, “I’m no different than anybody else. I like to go and get close to my friends and give them a hug. You can’t really do that right now, and it’s hard on everybody. We can’t even get hugs from our family and our friends right now, that we need. So, there’s not a whole lot of comfort. I guess that’s the hard part.”