MINOT, N.D. — Rob Tersteeg was a devoted family man who effortlessly assumed his role as a stepfather to three children when he married his wife in 2014. He supported his kids with love and humor, which is why when he died last month, one of his children wanted to carry his ashes out of the funeral service.

“It was our son Nikolai who carried Rob’s ashes out of the church because he said, ‘(Rob) was always there to pick me up, so it’s the least I can do to carry him,’” Amy Tersteeg, his wife, said.

Rob Tersteeg, 46, died on June 3 from COVID-19 after weeks of treatments. He was not vaccinated against COVID-19, and as he laid on an ICU hospital bed at Trinity Health in Minot, he told his wife he needed to get the kids vaccinated as soon as possible.

Getting immunized himself was never off the table. Having made it through more than a year of the pandemic without contracting the coronavirus and seeing the number of cases declining in North Dakota, it wasn’t a priority, Amy Tersteeg said.

“Rob had every COVID treatment, and it did not save him,” she said. “Nothing had ever taken Rob down before. He just didn’t stand a chance against COVID.”

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'Isolated and alone'

As an oilfield safety officer for a natural gas company, Rob Tersteeg traveled all over the country in 2020 and never contracted the virus, even when he was in states dogged by COVID-19. But on Mother’s Day weekend of this year, he began to cough and feel ill.

He decided to go to the emergency room when he had difficulty breathing. He never returned home from the hospital.

At Trinity Health, doctors decided to put Rob Tersteeg on a BiPap machine to help push air into his lungs and get his oxygen levels back to normal.

During this time, Amy Tersteeg could not be in his room because of hospital protocol, but she was able to stay in a room a short distance away from him and write messages back and forth on a whiteboard.

He received attentive care, and his wife said she will be forever grateful for the people who helped her husband. Even so, she said, it was depressing for him to be alone and not see his family.

“He was just so isolated and alone," Amy Tersteeg said.

On her birthday, May 29, Rob Tersteeg had a good day.

He commissioned a nurse to go to the hospital gift shop and buy flowers, chocolates and a bracelet for his wife. Amy Tersteeg left the hospital after visiting hours that day thinking it was a nice birthday because her husband seemed to be okay.

But that night, she received a call from the hospital saying his condition worsened and they needed to intubate him. She arrived at the hospital, and they prayed together before he was intubated. But even with the machine breathing for him, his oxygen levels were not getting better.

Rob Tersteeg at Trinity Health in Minot. Special to The Forum.
Rob Tersteeg at Trinity Health in Minot. Special to The Forum.

The doctors decided Rob Tersteeg needed to go on an ECMO machine, which filters out blood, oxygenates it and runs it to the body. Trinity Health doesn’t monitor patients on ECMO, so he was airlifted to M Health Fairview in Minneapolis.

Amy Tersteeg and her youngest daughter got the earliest flight to Minneapolis, but they were not allowed into the hospital because of COVID-19 protocol.

In the early morning of June 3, doctors told Amy Tersteeg over a Zoom call that her husband was brain dead.

‘He never thought it could happen to him’

Amy Tersteeg works in an administrative role for Trinity Health, and she received the COVID-19 vaccine when it was available to only health care providers in North Dakota.

For a while, COVID-19 was almost all she talked about because of her job, and she and Rob Tersteeg had many conversations about getting vaccinated.

He was open to getting vaccinated, but it wasn’t a priority because he had no underlying health conditions and it was something he didn't think needed to happen right away, Amy Tersteeg said.

Rob Tersteeg. Special to The Forum.
Rob Tersteeg. Special to The Forum.

In telling her husband's story, she said she is not pushing anyone to get vaccinated. People should make their own decisions, but she wants people to know what he experienced.

“He never thought it could happen to him,” she said. “I want people to see what COVID really does. I want them to know that Rob received every COVID treatment, and it did not save him. ”

While he was in Trinity Health’s ICU, he spoke with one of its infectious disease specialists, Dr. Casmiar Nwaigwe, about sharing his story.

Nwaigwe said some people think they are invincible against COVID-19 because they are young and healthy, but Rob Tersteeg’s story demonstrates that even the healthy can die from the illness.

“People feel that as long as they don’t have any underlying medical conditions that they are not at risk of COVID. In my experience, it is not true,” Nwaigwe said.

Since Rob’s death, the Tersteeg family received overwhelming support from friends and family, many of whom say they plan to get or are already vaccinated.

Last week, friends and family organized a cornhole tournament in his memory, as the backyard game was one of his favorites.

“He was the most loving father, but no matter how hard I worked, COVID still took my husband from me,” Amy Tersteeg said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.