MINOT, N.D. — On the night of Dec. 10, I found myself struggling to walk across the emergency room parking lot at Trinity Hospital in Minot, gasping for breath.

The COVID-19 virus, which I tested positive for on the 5th, came on me slowly.

So slowly, it almost killed me.

After testing positive I had resolved to take the virus seriously — no tough-guy routine for me. I made a telehealth appointment. I got medication and advice. I was going to take care of myself and get better as quickly as possible.

The virus is insidious. It was choking off my oxygen. At home, I was dealing with terrible nightmares. My cognitive functions declined. I make a living from words, and I'm not often at a loss for them, but I was having trouble articulating even basic thoughts to my family.

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I thought this was just fatigue and the side effects of my fever.

It wasn't until my mother-in-law, a nurse, came to my home and put an oximeter on my finger that I realized how bad things were. My blood oxygen level was in the low 60s. When we called my telehealthcare provider for advice, they expressed surprise I was still conscious.

They told me to get to the emergency room as soon as I could.

Which brings us back to that terrible walk into the emergency room, fighting for air and alone because I was prohibited from bringing anyone in with me.

I was convinced I was going to die.

My demise, I thought, would be reported by the North Dakota Department of Health as "Man in his 40s from Ward County" in a news release that would land in an email inbox I'd never be checking again.

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The emergency room staff got me on oxygen immediately, and I responded to it well, though I was very close to needing a ventilator. I was admitted to the hospital for the first in what would end up being an 11-night stay.

As I lay in my dark hospital room, on an IV-drip and a steady feed of oxygen, I wondered how my night would have gone if it had happened in November instead of December.

Just weeks before my illness, the state of North Dakota had more than 10,000 active cases of COVID-19. The two-week average positive rate for the state was nearly 16%. The number of hospitalizations was well over 300.

And Minot, where I live, was the epicenter of this maelstrom, as my colleague Adam Willis reported on Nov. 20. "Of the state's seven most populous counties, Ward has the densest concentration of active virus cases, at 163 for every 10,000 residents," he wrote. "Minot has become a paragon of North Dakota's pandemic crisis: a nightmare nexus of virus skepticism, underestimated rural spread, delayed action and an overburdened hospital system."

Thankfully, by the time I stumbled into the emergency room, things were different. Active cases and hospitalizations were down. I could see for myself that a weight had been lifted. I was treated immediately in the emergency room. The hospital had no problem finding a room for me. The staff was professional, attentive and friendly.

It was a stark difference from what Adam had reported just weeks before.

What made that difference?

On Nov. 13, Gov. Doug Burgum issued a statewide mask mandate. Even before that, communities across the state, including Minot, had begun instituting their own policies. These policies, coupled with North Dakota's awful spread numbers in November, finally convinced people in our state, who were resistant to things such as masking, to begin taking the virus seriously.

There is no denying the impact. North Dakota's virus numbers have plummeted since mid-November. Hospitalizations are down 60% from a Nov. 11 high of 339. Active cases are down more than 76%.

The care I received at Trinity was first-rate — I'm a little emotional, as I write this, thinking about all the excellent people who helped me — but just weeks before I turned up needing help, they were overrun. At that time, they told an acquaintance of mine who had come to the emergency room for care that they had to wait in their car.

Which they did, for hours, before giving up and going home.

If I had gone home on Dec. 10, instead of getting care, I believe you'd be reading my obituary right now and not this column.

I have argued against mask mandates as policy, though I have always been pro-mask, and my household has taken every precaution to avoid being part of the virus spread problem.

I believed then, and still do now, that choice is better than force. Even despite the various state and local mandates, it was ultimately choice that made the difference. The dramatic shift in North Dakota's COVID-19 trends after Gov. Burgum's announcement came with little in the way of enforcement action.

It may not have happened as quickly as it should have, but North Dakotans finally embraced the reality of the pandemic, and I'm alive to tap on my keyboard today because of it.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.