GILLETTE — Her symptoms came on suddenly.
It was early February, when everyone looked out for and knew what a headache, fever and loss of taste and smell meant.
The symptoms for Kristi and Andy Gabriel came on at the same time. From the beginning, Kristi had it worse.
After a few days, she decided to go to the Campbell County Memorial Hospital emergency room, where she tested positive for COVID-19, was given an oxygen tank and sent home.
Kristi, 42, knew how the schtick goes. As a former respiratory therapist herself, she knew her way around an oxygen tank. That’s also why she knew that when the 6 liters of oxygen in the tank wasn’t doing the job for her, she was in worse shape than expected.
And she was right.
When Kristi left for the hospital the second time, if or when she would return was unclear.
At the hospital for round two, Kristi was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia from COVID-19 and went onto a more intensive oxygen machine. From there, she was soon put on a CPAP machine before being transferred to the intensive care unit. There, she developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, which caused her lungs to fill with fluid and not air.
Her charts from the time show the oxygen levels in her lungs decreasing at a startling rate. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma and hooked her to a ventilator.
It was just days after Kristi had seemed perfectly healthy that Andy came with his sister to say their goodbyes to her.
On one of the coldest days of the year, Andy watched the small air ambulance flight take off from Gillette. As he filmed the plane fly away, he thought it would be the last time he saw Kristi alive.
He wasn’t alone in that thought.
The pulmonologist on the flight saw Kristi’s critical condition and didn’t think she would survive the short flight to Billings Clinic Hospital.
She put Kristi at a 1-percent chance of survival.
Kristi remembers almost none of what happened. The two weeks before and four weeks while Kristi was hanging on to her 1-percent chance at life were a haze for her.
Andy remembers it all.
“I just knew that she wasn’t going to come back,” said Andy, a well of emotion from that time showed in his words and the pressure building behind his eyes. “It was a very hollow feeling. It was a very emotional feeling.”
Before the flight to Billings, while her condition was clearly getting worse, Kristi sent Andy a long text from the hospital. That message mentioned life insurance, cremation preferences and other end-of-life proceedings. Noticeably absent was optimism.
“Stop talking like that (you’re) gonna come here to me,” he replied back.
Neither of them knew if that would ring true.
Twenty-two years ago, Andy and Kristi met on a blind date. They have been together ever since. And for the first time in 22 years, the circumstances of life forced Andy to consider life without her.
After seeing Kristi off at the airport that freezing cold day, Andy went home and sat in the house they had recently moved into. As he perched on a kitchen barstool and leaned against the counter, both Gunner and Charlie Lou, their Cocker Spaniel and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, appeared at his feet with a look in their eyes.
Although they have no kids, their two dogs are like blood to them.
Like most pet owners can attest to, animals can tell you how they feel. Not with their words, obviously, but they can communicate feelings with their eyes that go far beyond the limited commands they may know. When Andy saw Gunner and Charlie Lou stare up at him with a confused, curious gaze, he knew they wondered where Kristi was and when she was coming back.
But like every other existential and big picture question in his life at that moment, he didn’t have an answer.
“I thought that was the end,” he said.
From that point, the days and weeks passed in a surreal state of uncertainty. Andy went to work and came home. In Billings, Kristi remained attached to an ECMO machine, which was hooked into her lungs through two garden hose-like tubes that pumped blood out, oxygenated it, removed the carbon dioxide, then returned it back to her body. It is like an exterior, mechanical set of lungs.
For weeks, she laid in a medically induced coma with that machine as her lifeline.
Kristi worked for 15 years as a respiratory therapist, so she was familiar with the inner working of the body’s respiratory system. She could understand what was happening inside of her.
Although she has little memory from that time, there are a few flashbulb moments that stand out. Like when she was on the gurney, unsure where the medical staff was pushing her to but fixated on the respiratory vitals in her field of vision. The muscle memory from her decade-plus on the job kicked in. She locked onto the screen and recognized just how bad her health was. Except at the time, she said she couldn’t even comprehend that those were her own depleted vitals she was seeing.
Then there was the memory from the hospital in Gillette, when she lay prone on her stomach, hooked to a CPAP machine and still struggling for breath. She recalls trying to flip over, with each inch of movement taking more exertion than she could give. That sense of strain let her know how dire her condition was.
Hours after that, she was on the plane to Montana.
“I was severely ill and when a lot of patients get to the state I was in, it’s fatal,” Kristi said. “They don’t make it.”
But once she was hooked to the ECMO machine, unconscious and with hoses pumping blood through her body, her fight still was not over.
The medical jargon in telling her story is extensive, but in short, nearly every part of her body was taxing itself to survive. A procedure to remove mucous from her lungs resulted in a 15-minute seizure. During her weeks hooked to that machine, a string of other body systems began having issues. She had to have four blood transfusions to replace her own blood lost.
“My body was in so much stress just to stay alive that it was doing whatever it needed to do,” she said.
While in Billings, she received then prominent COVID-19 treatments of convalescent plasma transfusions, remdesivir and basically anything doctors thought would help her heal.
“They were attacking me at every angle they could,” she said of the Billings medical staff.
And it worked. Weeks after being given a 1-percent chance of survival, Kristi woke up.
Still weak and barely able to focus her thoughts, her nurses handed her a video tablet with her family on the call about 30 minutes after being extubated.
She hardly remembers that call, similar to the previous six weeks of her memory that were effectively wiped. But her family remembers and couldn’t have been happier to see a groggy Kristi on the other end of the line.
Later that night and into the early morning, both Kristi and Andy laid in separate beds hundreds of miles away, struggling to process the improbability of what just happened
Finally awake and alert enough to try piecing together the last six weeks missing from her memory, Kristi borrowed a nurse’s cellphone and called Andy around 2 a.m.
He didn’t recognize the unknown phone number coming through on his bedside, but Andy decided to pick up the phone.
They then went on to talk for about two hours through the middle of the night. As unbelievable as the details of Kristi’s health crisis were, it was almost as unbelievable for Andy that weeks after finding himself at the kitchen counter fearing the worst, hollow and alone, Kristi was alive to hear her own story.
When Kristi had her coronavirus-induced brush with death throughout February, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines had been approved for emergency use, but access to it was still prioritized for health care workers and the elderly population.
The vaccine’s protection could have prevented Kristi’s infection or significantly reduced the severity of her symptoms, but it had not been available to the public as widely as it is now.
Now alive and in one of the least vaccinated counties in one of the least vaccinated states, Kristi wants others to know her story and, more importantly, to get vaccinated themselves.
“It’s frustrating for me because a lot of it could be avoided by taking the vaccine,” Kristi said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re going to lose a lot of people before it’s over because they don’t take the vaccine and they don’t take it seriously. This is really happening. This is happening in our community and a lot of it could be avoided.”
It’s almost as if the more time goes by and the more information is gathered that supports the initial findings that the approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, those who took their stance against it are even more steadfast.
Some minds may be changing with the ongoing delta variant surge putting hospitalizations throughout Wyoming and in Campbell County now at a higher volume than they were at the same time last year — even with the vaccine now accessible — but the number of those vaccinated has barely moved.
About 21 percent of Campbell County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Sept. 13, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. That number is effectively tied with Crook County for the lowest rate in Wyoming. The whole state was at 36.5 percent vaccination rate, which marks it as one of the least vaccinated states in the country.
Kristi’s story is known to her family and those who are close to her, but still, her personalization of the pandemic that can at times feel distant or non-applicable to some Americans has still not convinced some in her own life to get vaccinated.
During the fall 2020 COVID-19 surge, Kristi lost her father and aunt to the virus, both of whom lived in different states outside of Wyoming.
“Even though I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through, some of my family still doesn’t agree with the vaccine,” Kristi said. “And it’s shocking. It’s difficult to try to explain things to them. ... I know there is a lot of misleading information out there and I know sources are trying to cut down on that, but you can’t eliminate them all. It’s unbelievable some of the fictitious stuff that’s out there and people are buying into.”
So Kristi is pleading for the public to take the opportunity that she didn’t have for herself. Get vaccinated, protect yourself, protect your neighbors and family and most importantly, don’t go through what she had to go through.
After that late night call with Kristi where they caught up on the past month, Andy drove to Billings to bring her cellphone so they could talk more often. Because of COVID-19 precautions at the time, Andy couldn’t see Kristi face-to-face. But he managed to talk his way to the outside of her door, where they saw each other through the window, a sight neither thought they would see again.
Not long after that, he returned to pick her up from the hospital for good.
Anxiously waiting outside of the hospital, Andy sat in his truck while the nurses got Kristi ready to head home. He waited and waited and eventually wondered what was taking so long. Inside, Kristi was struggling to dress herself.
For months, she would continue to be too weak to care for herself. She stayed on oxygen 24/7 for three months after returning home and still uses it at night when she sleeps.
“I’m not a patient person, but I had to make myself more patient,” she said. “You feel guilty for asking people to help you, but I needed help.”
More than six months later, rarely a day goes by without them discussing her bout with COVID-19 or dealing with the consequences of it.
Eventually, Kristi made it outside of the hospital and breathed the first fresh air she received since the cold February day some thought could be her last. Then they hugged. Something they had done a thousand times before, but never with so much time between.
“That hug meant so much because it was so difficult. He never thought he’d see me again,” Kristi said. “It was a very surreal moment as to what I went through and how tough it was for everybody.”
Andy helped lift her into the truck and together they left the facility that saved Kristi’s life.
Now living on time she was so close to losing, Kristi continues to preach the message she feels she lived so she could tell: Get vaccinated. Don’t go through what she and her family did.