LARIMORE, N.D. – Rick Parsons didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He didn’t have chronic health problems. His age didn't put him at risk for COVID-19.
Yet he died of the illness.
Parsons, 64, was hospitalized at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks for 41 days and on a respirator for 37 before he died June 3. Parsons was the first Grand Forks County victim without underlying conditions to die from the virus.
Overall, four people in the county have died of coronavirus-related problems, and 408 people had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, July 8, according to the North Dakota Health Department.
Five weeks after his death, LaVonne, Parsons’ wife of nearly 30 years, and their children – Richard Parsons Jr., Minneapolis; Darby Parsons, Windsor, Vt.; Chelsea Crimmins, Pine River, Minn; Alicia Parsons, Fargo; and Derrick Parsons, Grand Forks – haven’t yet scheduled a date for the Celebration of Life they are planning for Rick.
‘“We don’t want to put anyone at risk,” LaVonne said.
During the five weeks since Rick’s death, LaVonne has been working on remodeling their home as she adjusts to living without her husband of 29 years.
“He was my best friend. We worked and lived together 24/7,” LaVonne said.
LaVonne and Rick worked for the past 20 years in their business called NorthStar Works, which they ran out of their home in Larimore. For the first 13 years, the couple did both construction and home inspection. For the last seven, they did home inspections in an area that extended west to Leeds, N.D., east to Bemidji, north to the Canadian border and south to the South Dakota border.
The couple continued inspecting homes in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, practicing suggested sanitizing protocol and wearing gloves and masks, LaVonne said.
“Whatever the CDC put out, we posted on our Northstar Works Facebook page. We wore extra shoe covers, which weren't required because we were going into people's homes,” she said. “We wore gloves. We wore masks. We wiped down keys, door handles. It took an extra hour to do these things but we wanted to keep people safe.”
Meanwhile, they encouraged their clients not to be in the homes during the inspection.
On Friday, April 17, Rick and LaVonne took a day off from inspecting homes, intending to work on a construction project at their Larimore house, but both woke up feeling like they had colds. Over the weekend, their throats felt dry, but neither she nor Rick had fevers or coughs, LaVonne said.
On Monday, April 20, she called and described their symptoms to a Northwood (N.D.) Deaconess Health Center nurse, who listened and then asked LaVonne the typical questions about COVID-19 symptoms. All of LaVonne’s answers were “no,” and after consulting with the couple’s nurse practitioner, the nurse told her that he said it sounded like she had a sinus infection and Rick had bronchitis.
LaVonne started feeling better, but Rick didn’t rapidly improve the way he typically did.
“On Tuesday, he started feeling a little worse, and we canceled our inspections,” LaVonne said. “By Wednesday, he was feeling really bad, and I said ‘Maybe you have pneumonia.
“By Thursday, I had to help get him out of bed,” she said.
She called the Northwood Clinic that afternoon, and the couple’s nurse practitioner told her to bring Rick to the Northwood Hospital, where they were met at 3:30 p.m. by health care team members who took him inside.
“I had to wait in the truck. I stayed there until 6:30,” LaVone said.
Then, she started pounding on the clinic and hospital doors.
“I hadn't heard anything for three hours and I started to panic,” she recalled. Her pounding caught the attention of someone who let her in, and there she learned that her husband had been tested for COVID-19 and that he had double pneumonia, and was going to be transported by ambulance to Altru Health Systems.
Though he was seriously ill by then, their son Derrick said his dad was in good spirits when he called him the next day.
“I spoke with him over the lunch hour to see how he was doing,” Derrick said. “He said ‘I'll be out of here in a couple of days.’”
It was the last conversation they had.
The results of the rapid COVID-19 test performed in Northwood came back positive, and Rick was moved from a main floor room of the Grand Forks hospital to the surgical critical care floor, which Altru had transformed into a COVID-19 care unit.
On Saturday, April 25, Rick was placed on a ventilator. After that, he was unable to talk.
“That was one of the cruelest parts of all this, not being able to be there with each other and comfort each other, (and) Mom having to be completely alone all that time and no one being able to be there for her,” Chelsea said.
LaVonne tried to view the time apart from Rick as a deployment, like the ones they endured when he was in the military, she said. Meanwhile, she called him every day and sent him text messages, which his nurses read to him. She also phoned his mother, Elaine Parsons, and gave her daily updates.
“When I heard that he was in the hospital my first reaction was to call the airlines and go back there,” said Elaine, who lives in Colorado Springs. “Then I found out no one could see him, and Lavonne couldn’t have company because she also had tested positive for COVID-19.
“It was hard on all of us,” she said.
Before their positive tests, it never occurred to her that either she or Rick could have contracted COVID-19, LaVonne said.
“We honestly believed that we couldn’t because we had been so careful. That thought never even crossed my mind,” she said.
Despite the COVID-19 diagnosis, Derrick believed his dad would pull through, he said..
“It was a pretty big shock. He was never sick,’ he said.
Her dad was the strongest man, both physically and mentally, that she’s known, Chelsea said..
“Honestly, you would never think he would get an illness like this,” she said.
During Rick’s hospitalization, LaVonne, unable to go anywhere because she continued to test positive for COVID-19, worked to remodel their house.
“My hope was I could get a lot of things done before he went home. I bought a bed specifically for him,” she said.
Besides working, LaVonne prayed and read the Bible, focusing on Second Corinthians, Chapter 12, Verses 9-10: “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
She never felt like she couldn’t cope, she said.
“I have my faith which, by the grace of God, gets you through,” LaVonne said.
Meanwhile, Rick’s care team at Altru worked tirelessly to combat COVID-19, she said.
For more than a month, Rick's doctors and nurses tried several treatments on him, including plasma and hydroxychloroquine, but his condition failed to improve, and he remained on a ventilator.
On May 29, worried that the ventilator was doing irreparable damage to Rick's lungs, his doctor did a tracheotomy surgery, and the ventilator was removed.
That same day, LaVonne had a rapid test for COVID-19 – it was her fourth test – and the results, finally, were negative. For the first time in 35 days she went to Altru Hospital and saw her husband face-to-face.
During the next two days, Rick appeared to be getting better, and LaVonne began making plans to transfer him to a rehabilitation center in Fargo that focused on improving the lung capacity of patients.
But on June 2, a CAT scan showed that he still had pneumonia and had developed a blood clot.
The next day, he died.
LaVonne wants people to know that COVID-19 can be a killer virus, even for those who aren’t in the high-risk category.
“People need to be diligent. You need to be careful. This virus is real. It’s not political. It’s not a hoax. It affects people when you least expect,” she said.
“If you feel sick, you need to stay home. You need to call the doctor,” she said.
LaVonne misses Rick, but knowing how sick he was, she believes it would be selfish to wish that he hadn’t died and gone to heaven.
“I know he can breathe; I know he has a new body,” she said. “How can I be upset with that?”
For Chelsea, her dad’s death sometimes seems surreal, especially when she goes home to visit her mom.
“You almost expect him to come around the corner with a little piece of wood and a square pencil. He was always working on things, remodeling the house, making toy boxes,” Chelsea said.
“It’s definitely very difficult to digest and wrap your mind around,” Darby said. “Still not having been home, I’ve definitely had to compartmentalize it a little.”
She is looking forward to visiting her mom this month.
“I really want to be in my family home. I need to be there,” Darby said.
Derrick is grieving the loss of both a dad and a friend, he said.
“I would talk to him every day. Now that he’s gone, there’s a large piece of my life missing,” Derrick said. He is grateful for the memories he has of Rick teaching him construction skills such as framing, siding and shingling homes. He also learned values from Rick that he practices in his own job as a mechanical engineer.
“He instilled in me a very strong work ethic, and no matter what, to do things with integrity,” Derrick said. “He valued honesty, and he didn’t tolerate lying.
“I could not have had a better dad than him. I am really thankful that the last conversation he and I had was a really, really good conversation,” he said “With my relationship with my dad, I have zero regrets. He was my best friend.”