Eastman man survives COVID-19 after difficult battle at Mayo Clinic Health System

Family's experience changes their perspective on reality of COVID-19 pandemic

EASTMAN, Wis. (WKBT) – Imagine if a person you loved was in the hospital with COVID-19 and you couldn’t see them. That was the case for one local family as a husband and father fought for his life.

This family never thought this virus could affect their small southwest Wisconsin town.

Conquering Covid

Eastman Wisconsin sits about 12 miles northeast of Prairie Du Chien. More than 400 people call Eastman home.

“Eastman’s a typical small town, 400 people,” said Craig Bell, a long time Eastman resident. “It’s a really nice place to raise a family.”

Outside the steady rush of metropolitan traffic, there are communities that actually sleep at night. Their people are okay with that.

“We’ve lived here for 38 years,” Craig Bell said.

Craig and his wife Julie Bell are active in their home town.

Conquering COVID-19

Craig and Julie Bell are long time residents of Eastman.

“I am a rural route mailman in Soldiers Grove Wisconsin which is the northern part of Crawford County,” he said. “I have been doing that for about 22 years.”

Julie works in the kitchen for the local school district. Both of them were paying little attention to the harsh reality of a virus that seemed too far away to worry.

“Me, like everybody else, was like, ‘I think you guys are all blowing this out of proportion,” Craig Bell said.

Craig takes a routine route to deliver mail to 400 people every day. He takes that same route home at the end of each day.

The news of COVID-19 spread and it wasn’t long before he was wearing masks and gloves at work.

“We were pretty careful about stuff,” he said.

Then things hit a little closer to home.

“Basically it started, he was feeling like he had a cold because influenza was going around. I know at school a lot of kids were out,” Julie Bell said. “That was March 20 on a Friday.”

Something happening in massive cities around the country was bursting through the bubble of their small town.

“He noticed on the news they were testing in La Crosse,” Julie Bell said.

Craig was tested and not long after that, they received a call from a nurse. He had tested positive for COVID-19.

“First one in Crawford County,” Julie said. “I said only Craig Bell could be the first one in Crawford.”

Over that weekend his symptoms became severe.

Conquering COVID-19

Craig Bell was cared for at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse after his symptoms became severe.

“This is not the flu,” said Dr. Joe Poterucha of Mayo Clinic Health System. “This is not Ebola. These patients are very sick.”

Doctors at Mayo Clinic say this virus affects everyone differently. Often the symptoms are not this bad, but the potential is always there.

“We are even seeing young people in their mid-30s, 20s taken out with relatively good health,” Poterucha said.

Experts are concerned for a specific reason.

“This was all new to them too, the doctors,” Julie Bell said. “It was new to everybody.”

Dr. Mike Harrison said this virus has many unknowns due to the fact there is no treatment available.

“We don’t have a vaccine for this and nobody has immunity,” he said.

It doesn’t take much for the virus to spread. The evidence is found in New York and Detroit where Harrison trained.

Conquering COVID-19

Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit Michigan, a city hit hard by the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

“The hospital I trained at, Henry Ford, turned into an 800 bed ICU,” Harrison said.

When Craig arrived in La Crosse saving his life was no small task.

“Really we had to bust out all the moves we had learned from the major cities,” Poterucha said.

Things were not looking good according to Harrison who was monitoring Craig during his worst moments in the hospital.

“I was very scared for Mr. Bell,” Harrison said.

Harrison said it’s hard enough to give bad news in person.

Conquering COVID-19

Craig Bell spent several days in the intensive care unit at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse

“It’s even harder when they are being told on the phone by somebody they have never met,” he said.

A decision one night changed everything.

“They were going to flip him, totally flip him over,” Julie Bell said.

Conquering COVID-19

This photo was provided by the Bell family of Craig when his symptoms improved.

Harrison said they turned hip over so Craig could get more Oxygen. There was a lot of fluid in his lungs and swelling preventing them from working properly.

“I got a phone call at 5:30 in the morning, he was doing better,” Julie Bell said.

Shortly after that Craig would be on the road back home after a long fight.

“I was in a dream state for five days,” Craig Bell said.

He was on a ventilator for about eight days. Before Julie received better news, she told doctors to make him comfortable if she couldn’t be there to hold his hand.

“Make him whatever you can, and they need, and he’s here,” she said.

His kidneys were operating at 30 percent and there could have been brain damage. Doctors weren’t sure he would ever speak again.

“Now he never shuts up,” Julie Bell said with a joking smile.

Craig was wheeled out of his room and he was greeted by a group of Mayo staff who gave him a warm sendoff.

“As soon as I hit the hallway, there were all these doctors and interns,” he said as tears rolled down his face. “They were all standing out in the hallway and they were all clapping.”

A parade of people waiting for him at home too. The long time mail carrier was on the receiving end this time.

Conquering COVID-19

Craig received several letters from people around the United States.

“People had written me words of encouragement,” he said.

He had letters from friends and some from complete strangers as far as Florida. This experience Craig said woke him up.

“Don’t take this for granted,” he said. “I am living proof or could have been unliving proof that this does happen.”

Conquering COVID-19

Craig Bell walks up to his driveway with help from his neighbors after he was released from the hospital.

He said people have to take an unfamiliar road with caution if they plan to make it back home.

“This disease doesn’t care what political party you are,” he said. “It don’t care if you are black, white, red, it don’t care who you are. It doesn’t care if you are five years old or 70 or 90 years old. This is very real.”

About four years ago, Craig and Julie were featured in Jennifer Livingston’s “In Search of Series.” They run an organization called “Wheel of Todd” that supports disabled children and their families.

Their efforts are in honor of their son Todd who passed away due to complications with muscular dystrophy. He was on a waiting list for Packers tickets and he did not get them in time.

Conquering COVID-19

His family decided to donate the tickets and provide a free gameday experience for other children with similar struggles. To find out more about their story at wheeloftodd.org.