MOORHEAD — Harlen Poehls' battle with COVID-19 was so desperate that at the low point he began planning for hospice care and discussing arrangements for his funeral.

His symptoms began while he was on a deer hunting trip in western North Dakota with members of his family.

He was able to return to his north Moorhead home before the symptoms got bad. Soon, however, his fever spiked to 104 degrees and he was bedridden.

“I’d shake so bad I couldn’t control myself,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything.”

He went to a testing center in the former Thomas Edison Elementary School and the news came back with the expected diagnosis that he had COVID-19.

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The 85-year-old’s condition continued to deteriorate. He went to the emergency room in November, when cases were at their peak, and was sent home. A few days later, he went back, and this time was admitted to the COVID-19 unit at Sanford Broadway Medical Center.

That was on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving — the beginning of a health crisis that would keep him hospitalized for 67 days.

He would shed 42 pounds from his 180-pound frame. One of his lungs would collapse. He refused to be placed on a ventilator.

“I was at the point of no return at one time,” he said.

And he survived, thanks to a strong will to live and the care received from multiple teams of dedicated doctors and nurses, his family believes.

“He’s literally been to hell and back,” his son Tim Poehls said.

But surviving COVID-19 is one thing. Regaining your life, after becoming severely weakened from spending weeks in a series of hospital beds with a body ravaged by the virus, is another.

Harlen Poehls of Moorhead stands Thursday, March 4, by the exercise bicycle he's used to regain his strength after losing 42 pounds while hospitalized for COVID-19. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Harlen Poehls of Moorhead stands Thursday, March 4, by the exercise bicycle he's used to regain his strength after losing 42 pounds while hospitalized for COVID-19. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

'A very social guy'

At the COVID-19 unit at Sanford Broadway Medical Center, doctors repeatedly told Harlen Poehls that his best chance for recovery would be to go on a ventilator to help him breathe.

“Your options are next to nothing,” he said, recalling his doctors’ advice.

But each time, Poehls refused.

They had experimented with a type of helmet designed to deliver oxygen and help patients breathe, but Poehls couldn’t tolerate the device and pulled it off.

“I totally freaked out,” he said. “I was very high with anxiety at the time. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was ruling me. I said if I don’t make it, I don’t make it. It was my choice.”

The isolation that is required to treat highly infectious COVID-19 patients was difficult for his father, and Tim Poehls believes that is why his condition continued to deteriorate in the hospital.

“Dad is a very social guy,” he said. “The problem is they couldn’t be with their families.”

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Still, he said the care his father received was “second to none.” COVID-19 patients often have their ups and downs, and that was the case with Harlen.

When he was no longer infectious, he was moved out of the COVID-19 ward and into intensive care.

At the low point, Poehls believed he was dying. “We were talking about hospice and palliative care,” his son said. “That’s how bad it was.”

But Poehls rebounded and was transferred to Vibra Hospital of Fargo, a long-term acute care hospital located inside Sanford Medical Center, to continue to recuperate. While there, his family met with a team at the Post Acute Medical (PAM) Rehabilitation Hospital of Fargo, a rehabilitation center.

“We believe he can do it, because he really wants to go home,” Tim Poehls said, recalling the evaluation to determine his father's rehab potential.

When he entered the rehab hospital, Harlen Poehls had to use a wheelchair. During almost two months of being bedridden, his body had weakened severely. The 42 pounds he’d lost included much of his muscle mass.

He would have to regain the ability to walk and take care of himself. Even the simplest tasks, like taking a shower while standing up, were beyond his ability.

“When he got here, he really couldn’t do anything,” said Sarah Nordin, chief of therapy at PAM Hospital. In the beginning, “we helped him get dressed.”

The therapists at PAM Hospital worked with Poehls in a series of progressive therapies that gradually rebuilt his body. He walked the hallways. He rode a stationary bicycle. He climbed stairs.

Sarah Nordin, chief therapy officer at the Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital of Fargo, stands in one of the hospital's therapy rooms. The hospital uses a team approach, integrating physical, occupational and speech therapy. Forum file photo
Sarah Nordin, chief therapy officer at the Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital of Fargo, stands in one of the hospital's therapy rooms. The hospital uses a team approach, integrating physical, occupational and speech therapy. Forum file photo

Exercises strengthened his core as well as his arms and legs. “We targeted certain muscle groups so it all came together,” Nordin said.

Poehls could feel his strength returning. “You would walk a little further each day,” he said. “You could see the progress each day.”

Jonah Joyce, a physical therapist who worked with Poehls, credited his grit and determination.

“He was hardworking, he had a good drive,” Joyce said. Although “extremely weak” at the beginning, “he was one of the best candidates because he was so hardworking.”

COVID-19 patients often have shortness of breath and a severe level of “deconditioning,” requiring long courses of rehabilitation, Nordin and Joyce said.

Hospital rehabilitation stays for COVID-19 can range from seven or 10 days up to two or three months, Nordin said. “It just depends how quickly they can bounce back.”

Some COVID-19 patients come to rehab after spending two or three months on a ventilator. “They take longer,” she said.

The Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital is seen Thursday, March 4, at 4671 38th St. S. in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
The Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital is seen Thursday, March 4, at 4671 38th St. S. in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

'It's a miracle'

On Jan. 31, after 67 days of hospitalization, including 11 days of rehab, Harlen Poehls walked out of PAM Hospital and got into his son’s waiting SUV.

He was driven to Tim Poehls’ home near Wolverton, Minn., where he could receive help in the early days of his recovery outside the hospital.

His first day out of the hospital was a Sunday. On Monday, Tim Poehls and his wife went to work and Harlen managed well on his own.

“He came back fast,” Tim Poehls said. For about two weeks, Harlen Poehls has been back at home, managing by himself as he continues to regain strength and endurance.

“It was a very good relief just to relax at home,” Harlen Poehls said. “I could sleep, relax. It’s just a whole different situation.”

“It’s a miracle,” Tim Poehls said. “We really believed we were going to lose him.”

Harlen Poehls never really retired. He spent his career working as a truck driver. After retiring at the age of 71, he became bored after a few weeks and started working for Tim’s construction business, delivering materials and supplies, and helping out in other ways.

In fact, he still has a commercial driver’s license allowing him to drive an 18-wheeler and had worked right up until he got sick with COVID-19 in November.

He has an exercise bike that he uses to continue his rehab at home. He’s slowly regaining weight and strength.

“The muscle isn’t there that it used to be,” he said.

Since returning home, Harlen Poehls has a new outlook on life, having survived such a trying ordeal.

“He’s got a different zip in his step,” his son said. “He’s a different guy and it’s a positive.”