It’s real and it affects real people: Children of Gary and Carol Bahr share the experience of losing both of their parents to Coronavirus

Carol and Gary Bahr ... Gary and Carol Bahr of Waukon were each stricken with the Coronavirus earlier this spring and both eventually lost their lives to the virus, Carol passing away April 13 and Gary succumbing to complications from the disease May 4. Their three children recently shared what their entire family has been through since their experience with Coronavirus began with Gary first falling ill in early April of this year. Submitted photo.

Bahr family from 1981 ... Gary and Carol Bahr with their three children, clockwise from top left: Jenny, Jeff and Jason. Submitted photo.

by Lissa Blake

The Coronavirus is real and it affects real people. That’s something the children of Gary and Carol Bahr of Waukon have learned first-hand in heartbreaking fashion over the past two months, when COVID-19 took the lives of both of their parents.

Gary and Carol Bahr, both 74 years old, passed away within days of each other in mid-April and early May of this year. Although Gary was the first one to be hospitalized, his wife of 54 years preceded him in death by three weeks.

Their children, Jeff Bahr of Onalaska, WI and Jason Bahr and Jenny (Bahr) Kugel, both of Waukon, recently shared their family’s story with The Standard in an effort make people realize how real this virus is and how much of an impact it can have.

“It all started when my dad took a fall April 2,” said Jeff. Jason and another family member went to the house to help but realized they would need back-up, so encouraged Carol to call 911. When asked if Gary had any underlying health issues before the fall, Jeff said he had been treated for bladder cancer about seven months before, but “his prognosis for that was very good.”

Jenny said after her dad was admitted to Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waukon, he seemed to be in fairly good shape, other than being low on potassium. “But by the next day, he started acting funny,” said Jenny. In addition to acting confused, doctors realized he was having some trouble breathing, so they put him on a ventilator and took him to La Crosse, WI.

When they asked their mom about their dad, she said he had seemed a little weak for a couple of days. When Gary arrived in La Crosse, they discovered his blood-oxygen level was extremely low. “They ended up intubating and sedating him, and that’s how he was for like three and a half weeks,” said Jeff.

Shortly after his arrival in La Crosse, Gary tested positive for the Coronavirus. When asked how the family felt when they heard his diagnosis, Jason replied, “Scared as s**t; mainly because they (his parents) fall in that most susceptible age bracket.” The siblings said up until this point, their concerns focused on their dad, who lay quietly sedated in the intensive care unit (ICU) in La Crosse. “It was really his story up to that point,” said Jeff.

Less than a week after Gary took ill, the siblings noticed their mother wasn’t doing well. “Dad had a nasty cough when he went into the hospital, and Mom had developed one, too,” Jeff said. Jenny said she contacted the clinic and took her mom in for an appointment, during which she received a prescription for some cough medicine. “We got the cough medicine and it just wasn’t doing anything. So by the next day, she said, ‘I just don’t feel good.’ I had several of her friends call me with concerns. She was having a terrible time breathing,” said Jenny.

Jenny contacted the clinic again, and received instructions on how to bring her in. “I got us masks and gloves and went to pick her up. It took me 15 minutes to get her from the house to the car,” said Jenny. “I walked her to the door of the emergency room… and that was the last time I saw her.”

Jason said up until that point, his mom had been “doing what doctors told her to do.” She had been monitoring her temperature regularly. “But she never had a temperature, so she didn’t fit the criteria to be tested (for COVID),” he said.

After Jenny took Carol to the emergency room in Waukon, they put her on oxygen and took her to La Crosse, where they intubated her as well. “I remember she was pretty sick, but over that weekend, we seemed to think she was getting better. She was off of oxygen and had a breathing mask. The nurses said she was chatting with them and whatnot,” said Jeff.

Carol had been admitted to the hospital Thursday and spent the next couple of days in what looked like stable condition. But then by Sunday, she started to go downhill. “They described it that she had been really chatty, but then grew quiet and was too tired to talk. At 1:30 in the morning, she had a heart attack. They tried to bring her back a couple of times, but couldn’t,” said Jeff. Carol passed away early on a Monday morning, in the same critical care unit where her husband lay, still sedated.

Jeff recalled he was sound asleep when an officer came to his house and knocked on the door at 4:00 a.m. “He was so polite. He didn’t tell me what had happened, but asked who I was and said, ‘They need you to call the hospital right now,’” he recalled. “I called them, and they told me.” Jeff said he had gone to bed that night and had turned his ringer off in order to get a good night’s rest. “I knew Dad was sedated and stable, and it sounded like Mom was doing okay,” he said. “Mom was only in there for four days. She passed away and our dad had no idea. He never did,” said Jeff.

The siblings agreed it would be best for their father not to tell him about their mother’s death until he got a little better. “He had been sedated for three weeks, and he started to come out of it. We kind of had high hopes. We didn’t tell him anything about Mom. We wanted to see if he could come out of it... Some people can be hazy at first, but once they clear up you can talk to them,” said Jeff. Jason added as his dad regained consciousness, he’d have moments of clarity. “But those were brief. Doctors described it as a severe type of delirium,” said Jason.

Carol passed away April 13, but her family did not hold a funeral for her until May 1, as they held out hope that Gary might recover enough to be aware of and participate in her memorial, to some extent. “When Mom passed, we tried to wait to see if Dad would be able to recover and be a part of that. Obviously he wasn’t able to. Once we realized that, we planned Mom’s funeral in earnest,” said Jeff. Gary passed away May 4, and the family held a service for him just three days later on May 7.

Both funerals were attended by only about a dozen members of the family, including some of Gary and Carol’s siblings. Other friends and relatives were able to stream the burial service online through Martin Funeral Home’s Facebook page.

The siblings said looking back, it’s still hard to process everything that happened with their parents. “Mom’s passing was definitely more of a shock. We had a little more time to prepare for Dad’s death,” said Jason. When asked if they have any idea how either of their parents might have come into contact with the deadly virus, the Bahr siblings said they do not. “We’ve asked each other that 200 times - if we can put a finger on how it happened. They are their own people, as far as where they traveled and what they did and who they were in contact with,” said Jeff.

The Bahr siblings lamented the lack of early testing available for COVID and noted their parents’ health concerns had to evolve into an extreme health crisis before they could be tested. They also said, in small town Iowa, most people seem to think it’s something they’ll never need to worry about. “It hasn’t affected everyone. But it’s here and it’s not going anywhere in the foreseeable future,” said Jeff. “There are always people who think it’s not going to hurt them … Well look at us. Sometimes you see people online who think it’s fake or think ‘It doesn’t affect me.’ Those people are super frustrating.”

To the people who helped them through, the Bahr siblings wish to thank, “First and foremost, our family and friends, for all of their support; Veterans Memorial Hospital and EMS staff, including Cheryl Livingston; the Gundersen Hospital Critical Care Unit staff, including Dr. Elizabeth Cogbill; and the Martin Funeral Home and staff.”

Gary and Carol (Moen) Bahr met at Waukon High School and were married in 1966. Gary served in the U.S. Army and National Guard, and the couple farmed southwest of Waukon for many years, before going to work in town: Gary as a truck driver and Carol as a bookkeeper for several businesses in Waukon and Hammel Jewelers in Decorah. They belonged to Zion United Church of Christ, where Carol was active in the women’s fellowship and served as a past treasurer. The couple enjoyed playing cards and spending time with family and friends. Carol enjoyed reading, watching sports, sewing, crafts and cooking. Gary was an avid Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers and Iowa Hawkeye fan. He enjoyed fishing, playing cards and watching sports on TV, especially NASCAR and golf.

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