COVID-19 patient: ‘There’s no place like home’

After 52 days in two Sanford hospitals, Kristi Hegenbarth gets a sweet sendoff

For nearly two months, room 101 at the Sanford Sheldon Medical Center was Kristi Hegenbarth’s home.

Because the Sheldon, Iowa native has pre-existing conditions, she knew she might be at risk for complications if she got COVID-19.

In 2017, she was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. She finally finished her treatment, chemo, and maintenance therapy in October of 2020.

“We thought everything was good. November 17th of last year (2020), I had a rapid test and it came back positive for COVID,” said Hegenbarth.

Diagnosed

That’s when everything changed.

After two weeks, her symptoms started rapidly worsening.

“By December 6th, I was sick enough that I entered the hospital here in Sheldon, and was here for 10 days,” said Hegenbarth.

Related: Sanford opens infusion centers for COVID-19 treatment

Eventually, she went home.

But, she was on oxygen 24 hours a day.

From Christmas to New Year’s Day, her symptoms again started worsening. She was admitted to the hospital a second time. After nine days in the hospital, things took a very deep dive.

“The x-ray they took said the lungs were just not good, and it was time for me to go to Sioux Falls. So, I was airlifted to Sioux Falls,” said Hegenbarth.

Amy Badberg, M.D., is a physician at the Sanford Sheldon Clinic. She’s also a friend of the Hegenbarths.

She was the one who had to make the call of airlifting Hegenbarth to Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“When I sent her up to Sioux Falls, I was really concerned that she wasn’t going to make it. She has three young boys, and we let them come up and see her beforehand. That was good for them, because I didn’t know if that was going to be the least time they saw their mom.

“That night, I cried to the nurses’ station and I cried all the way home, because I really thought we weren’t going to see her again,” Dr. Badberg said with a lump in her throat.

Hegenbarth, through tears, said she overheard her providers discussing the possibility of putting her on a ventilator.

“That was very scary,” she said.

An unlikely recovery

Then, the unthinkable happened.

Hegenbarth responded to the treatments and recovered better than anyone could’ve ever predicted.

“I’ve talked to the doctors up in Sioux Falls that took care of her. Nobody expected that she would be this good, and that she would make this much of a recovery,” Dr. Badberg said.

“She talks about the doctors saying, ‘We don’t know what you’re going to be. You’re probably going to need oxygen for the rest of your life. We don’t know if we’ll ever get you out of the hospital. We don’t know if you’ll need a ventilator, or if you’re even going to make it.’ To get to this point is amazing. She’s amazing.”

Hegenbarth says the miraculous journey has brought her and her family together in an even stronger way.

During her time in the Sioux Falls and Sheldon hospitals, the time she could spend with her family was limited at best.

Headed home

But, on Feb. 11, she finally got to go home with her boys.

Sanford Health News was there to capture the heartfelt and powerful moment her boys could finally see, and hug, their mom.

“When are you coming home, Mommy?” asked one of her children.

“Right now,” said Hegenbarth, giving each of her kids a hug and kiss.

Hegenbarth’s kind, positive, and loving demeanor touches each person she comes into contact with. Because of this, “she’s kind of infamous around the hospital,” said Dr. Badberg.

“Everybody knows her by her first name, and stops in and sees her, because she’s made such a recovery,” she added.

So, it was only fitting the staff wanted to send her back home the right way.

They organized a surprise send-off for Hegenbarth.

After 52 total days in a hospital, the Hegenbarths went through the tunnel of cheering Sanford Health staff, loaded up the van, drove off, and were finally together.

As the Hegenbarths drove off, Kristi Hegenbarth rolled down the window, saying, “there’s no place like home, we’re finally going home. 52 days.”

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Posted In Coronavirus, People & Culture, Rural Health, Sheldon

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