Surviving COVID-19: Athletic Minnesota dad spent nearly 1 month on ventilator

Todd Nelson survived COVID-19 after spending nearly four weeks on a ventilator at St. Cloud Hospital. (Todd Nelson)

A Sauk Rapids, Minnesota man who used to compete in grueling obstacle course races recently battled through the biggest challenge of his life: COVID-19.

“I never thought I would come down with it,” said Todd Nelson, COVID-19 survivor. “I always thought, I wasn’t invincible, at least strong enough to get through.”

A Tough Mudder athlete, pharmacist and active dad in his 50s, he never imagined COVID-19 would nearly destroy him.

“When you can’t get a breath, anxiety kicks in and you start trying to force a breath instead of relaxing and taking in a nice, slow deep breath,” Todd said. “You kinda panic. Once that sets in, it’s hard to recover.”

His symptoms first surfaced towards the end of April. A near stroke-like experience eventually gave way to those breathing issues, fever and a loss of smell and taste. He eventually ended up at St. Cloud Hospital. His wife, Deanna, was unable to be by his side because of visitor restrictions due to the pandemic.

“Definitely, the first time, he called me to say he was going on a ventilator. That was scary, scary moment,” said Deanna Nelson. “Getting that call at like 4-5 in the morning, you say what you need to say.”

He was sedated in the ICU with a ventilator breathing for him for 25 days. Nearly four full weeks of his life, he cannot recall. His voice is still strained from the wear and tear.

“The month of May is gone. May 2020? I woke up to George Floyd,” he said. “And all I could do was watch TV and wait for the nurse to come and flip me over.”

Given the isolation and the lack of hospital visits even as Todd moved into rehab, his loved ones would check in on him via FaceTime. He shared his COVID-19 battle with friends and family on social media. Todd explained that he felt the prayers, the love and the support and they lifted him, motivating him to get better and beat this disease.

“People from work, people from our church, from the gym, high school classmates, it’s just incredible how many people were following and caring,” he said. “And my faith and belief in God through our church and all the prayers, really got me through.”

Todd, who once trained for 10-mile obstacle course races in the mud, currently is walking with a cane for support after coming home from the hospital June 13. The rest of his family all tested positive for coronavirus, but barely had any symptoms. The experience has left the Nelsons with a unique perspective as Minnesota and the rest of the country debates mask wearing and the greater reopening of society.

“You don’t want people to take it lightly, just because you don’t have any symptoms,” said Deanna. “For someone else, it’s life threatening.”

“I think we need to protect the vulnerable,” said Todd. “I think it’s important to wear a mask in large groups. You never know where you’re going to get this thing. I think we need to be smart and protect each other.”