MOORHEAD, Minn. — In mid-February, after a two-day physical examination, doctors gave Ben O’Donnell the thumbs-up to start training for his second Ironman triathlon, an intense show of physical fitness involving a 2.5-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and marathon run.
Less than a month later, O’Donnell would be fighting just to live another day.
The 2002 Concordia College graduate and Alexandria, Minn., native was just the third person in the state to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and the first to end up in the ICU. He’s an unlikely candidate to be ravaged by the virus — only 38 years old and in good physical condition with no underlying health conditions.
After being hospitalized for nearly a month, he continues to try and get back what COVID-19 took from him, and he’s vowing to run the Ironman again for those who haven't been as lucky.
'Everything felt off'
Talk of COVID-19 in the U.S. was heating up as O’Donnell, a chemist at a water treatment chemical company in the Twin Cities, took off for a business trip to Colorado and Texas the week of Feb. 28.
“I wasn’t thinking of taking all of these precautions because at that point they were talking about people over 65 being most at risk,” he said. “I wasn’t wearing a mask in the airport. I was washing my hands, but don’t know how careful I was about not touching my face.”
Still, he never dreamed it would make a difference.
By the time his wife, Deanna, also a chemist, picked him up at the airport a few days later, he said “everything felt off." He chalked it up as just being rundown from being on the road, but when he learned he had a fever of 102 degrees, he isolated himself from his wife and their young daughter on the off chance it could be COVID-19.
At that point, he didn’t even qualify to get a test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus because he didn’t know anyone who could have exposed him. So he stayed home sick and very tired for a week.
“I would get tired walking the dog around the house, going to the bathroom. I’d get winded and need 15 minutes to recover,” he said.
As the week went on, his symptoms worsened and now included a cough and gastrointestinal problems. He stopped eating.
By March 9, Deanna drove him to the hospital with the hope they could give him some fluids and send him home. That wasn’t the case.
“At 9:30 a.m. March 9, I waved goodbye to my wife. That was the last time I saw her for 28 days,” he said.
His test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus eventually came back positive. Chest X-rays showed O’Donnell’s lungs were 80 to 90 percent full of fluid, and the oxygen level in his blood was dangerously low.
By the next day, O’Donnell was put on a ventilator, but his numbers were still not improving. Doctors asked Deanna for permission to put Ben on an ECMO heart-lung pump, a last-ditch effort to get oxygenated blood to the heart, since his lungs were no longer doing the job. Doctors were clear with Deanna that the odds were not in their favor for either long-term recovery or even surviving the procedure itself.
“It was difficult. Within 24 hours of dropping him off, I was giving permission to doctors to perform a procedure on him that the odds were 50-50 he’d survive,” Deanna said.
In fact, just 21 out of 65 patients around the world have been taken off the pump alive.
'A dark place'
O’Donnell had to be heavily sedated while he was on the pump so he wouldn’t pull the tube out of his neck. During that time, he said his mind went to “a dark place.” To him, he was no longer in the hospital. He felt surrounded by masked people involved in human trafficking. He believed he saw dead bodies on the ceiling.
“But I was always thinking, ‘How can I escape? How can I find a way to get out?’” O’Donnell said. “Working with my counselor, now we think that was basically my mind’s way of trying to fight against the virus.”
After a week of hallucinations, a hug from his sister — a nurse who was allowed to visit at the time — helped the visions go away, and he woke up.
O’Donnell became the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. to live after ECMO. He was taken off the pump on March 22 and released from the hospital on April 6.
The road back
O'Donnell, who played both football and baseball at Concordia before becoming a triathlete, had lost 45 pounds during his time in the hospital. Most of it, he said, is muscle from his arms, legs and chest. The man who had already completed one triathlon in 2017 and was planning for another this fall in Arizona was now happy just to go for short walks.
“My first walk was six or seven minutes at 1 mph on the treadmill,” he said. “Even then, I needed oxygen.”
O’Donnell said he had pretty much given up hopes of doing the triathlon in November until he received a message of congratulations from “The Voice of Ironman” Mike Reilly.
“I decided after that to just put it out there as a goal,” O’Donnell said.
He’s doing a 5K in a couple of weeks. Deanna says while her husband is certainly not reckless with his training, she said she has to remind him once in a while that he wasn’t released from the hospital that long ago.
O’Donnell said he’s fortunate his body is recovering relatively quickly from his COVID-19 ordeal. That’s the main reason he wants to compete for others.
“How lucky am I to be able to walk like this, to breathe like this, to be able to come back like this? Others are six to eight weeks out of the hospital and can't even lift their arms,” O’Donnell said.
For that reason, O’Donnell is working with Ironaid, a support fund through the Ironman Foundation, to help raise money for COVID-19 relief by helping health-related nonprofits and others. To learn more, visit ironmanfoundation.org/ironaid.
Attracting national attention
O’Donnell’s case is attracting attention far outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He was interviewed for a recent Diane Sawyer news special on ABC, and ESPN is documenting his journey back to the triathlon.
“It’s weird. My wife and I are both very private people,” he said. “Doing stories like this is not in our DNA, but we thought with my story, it was too important not to tell.”
And it’s not just national media that’s come calling. He’s working with the National Institutes of Health to help get answers about COVID-19 and how to fight it.
“They still don’t know why it hit me so hard. I’m taking part in studies where they study my genetics or see if there is some condition we don’t know about and explain why it hit me so hard,” he said.
Additionally, O’Donnell’s antibodies were used to create the University of Minnesota’s antibody test to help people figure out if they might have had a past infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. Deanna and their daughter are getting an antibody test even though they have so far tested negative for the virus.
As difficult as this has been for the O’Donnell’s, they are trying to send a message of hope about Ben’s COVID journey. They said getting a positive diagnosis or being put on a ventilator or ECMO isn’t the end — there’s always a way forward.
O’Donnell said words he heard from an announcer at his first triathlon are just as meaningful during this pandemic.
“He said, ‘Don’t stop, don’t quit, keep moving forward.’ That has been my mantra,” O’Donnell said. “Putting one foot in front of the other, whether it’s in a chair putting one foot in front of each other or whether you can walk, just try and get that little bit better every day.”