Sara Koelsch has started to regret some of the choices she made in the November election.
“I will probably regret that a lot more once I start paying attention to things outside my house,” she said. Right now, she’s consumed with bigger worries.
Her husband, Don, got COVID-19 back in September, which ravaged his lungs. After nearly a month at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, he was put on a ventilator last week. Doctors said he needed a double lung transplant to survive.
He died Dec. 9, before even getting on the transplant waiting list.
Don Koelsch was just 38.
He had moved to Winfield, Missouri, about a year and a half ago from Vermont after getting a job as a truck driver. He was making good money, and saved enough to move his wife and their 11-year-old daughter here five months ago. He was careful about wearing a mask and taking precautions about the virus from the start: He had an autoimmune disorder that put him at higher risk for complications. But his condition was controlled with medicine, and he led an active life.
Don got sick while out on the road. When he got back home, he tested negative for COVID -- twice -- but kept getting sicker. Eventually, doctors transferred him to a hospital in St. Louis, where a lung biopsy revealed he had indeed contracted COVID, and that it had irreparably scarred his lungs.
Sara joined Don in Missouri shortly before November’s election. She was unfamiliar with local and state politics, didn’t have any connections in town and couldn’t get involved in much because of the pandemic. She knew she wanted to see a change in the federal government, but she figured that her husband had been thriving in Missouri before he got sick, so she voted for Gov. Mike Parson in hopes of staying the course.
“It’s a horrible way to vote, I acknowledge that,” she said recently. Her husband had been on the road on Election Day and was unable to vote, but he likely would have done the same, Sara said, adding that he had been opposed to mandatory masking laws.
She had texted him several days ago to ask if he still felt the same way.
“I disagree with nanny laws,” he wrote back. “However, masks keep others safe, as well. It’s not like a helmet law, where it’s just your head. I think while we are in such a dangerous situation, we should all be taking as many precautions as possible. If we want to keep our families safe, friends safe, people safe, I can see how a mandatory mask (law) is beneficial.”
That evening, Sara and her daughter, Amelia, decorated their Christmas tree while Facetiming with Don from his hospital bed. Later that night, he struggled to breathe for hours, even while on oxygen.
A nurse held his hand while he was intubated.
This week, his three months of short-term disability benefits ended, and his job security was uncertain. A friend started a GoFundMe to help the family with the bills that are piling up.
Sara said it’s hard to see people in her community shopping in stores without masks while her family’s lives have been turned upside down. She wonders if the governor she voted for has ever spent time with a family who is suffering from the pandemic the way they are.
“Maybe he needs to spend a day with a family who’s living it,” she said.
The governor recently took time off to be with his family. Meanwhile, Don was being tested for COVID twice a week, hoping for a negative result so he could be added to the waitlist for a new pair of lungs.
It never came.
When most kids her age are making Christmas lists, Amelia said she had one request for her mom: “I need you to promise me that you won’t leave me, too.”