Jerry Erstrom (center with hat) poses with his son Mike (left) and other family members. Ernstrom died Jan. 21 from the Covid virus. (Photo courtesy of Niki Cutler)
VALE – The nurse walked into the hospital room and then the chaplain came and they stood by as Niki Cutler kneeled next to her dad’s bed and held his hand and, as best she could, prepared for him to die.
His lungs destroyed by the Covid virus, Erstrom died quietly soon after.
Erstrom became one of 55 Malheur County residents who have died from Covid since last spring.
In Oregon, he was among 1,900 people who perished form Covid.
Less than a month before Jerry Erstrom died Jan. 21, he was a healthy 71-year-old man recovering from a minor back surgery. The future was wide open for the former farmer and Bureau of Land Management employee.
While the number of Covid deaths and infections continues to climb, Erstrom’s life and family and experiences can’t be relegated to statistics.
He was a dedicated employee, a man with a ready smile who loved his children and his grandchildren.
He liked to play cards with his grandson.
He loved Oreo cookies.
He loved to travel with his family.
He loved to go to Bixby’s Stopitoff Coffee in Vale.
“He loved to give people a hard time,” said Cutler.
Perhaps the simplest vision of Jerry Erstrom is the truest.
He was a father.
A hard worker.
He loved Malheur County.
Then one day the Covid virus invaded his body.
And it killed him.
When Niki Cutler first heard about the Covid virus a year ago, she didn’t consider it a serious illness.
In fact, she said in an interview last week, the virus appeared to be more of an inconvenience than anything else.
“I was not sure if it was actually anything worse than the flu,” said Cutler.
She no longer feels that way.
“I wish I still had the privilege to be that naïve,” said Cutler.
In mid-December Jerry Erstrom was hospitalized for back surgery. He returned to the Cutler household in Ontario afterward with Niki and her husband, Jared, helping him recover.
Covid didn’t haunt the Cutlers then and the family turned to Christmas.
“We had a small, quiet Christmas,” Cutler said. “Dad was a little sore from back surgery, but good.”
Life continued normally at the Culter house after Christmas. Jerry Erstrom watched television news or old Westerns. He enjoyed his grandkids, especially playing cards with his 12-year-old grandson Brennan.
The card games were a tradition for Erstrom and Brennan.
“They had the same sense of humor. They would try to one up each other with jokes. They didn’t need anyone else and went and did their thing,” said Cutler.
In late December, Jared Cutler, an Ontario Police Department officer, came down with a head cold.
“Then we found out he may have been exposed (to Covid) at work. He went and got tested and came up positive. My daughter and I came back positive. My dad was negative,” said Cutler.
“Where were we exposed? We honestly don’t know for sure,” said Cutler.
On the second to last day of the year, Jerry Erstrom went to a hospital in Nampa because of a urinary tract infection. Erstrom was again tested for Covid. Again, he was negative.
“We just needed to clear up the UTI and he was good to go to come home,” said Cutler.
A few days later while still in the hospital, Jerry Erstrom tested positive for Covid.
“He was having some congestion and some trouble breathing,” said Cutler.
X-rays of Erstrom’s chest showed he had Covid pneumonia that the medical staff told the Cutlers was manageable. Erstrom would need supplemental oxygen for a while but he was ready to go back home.
Erstrom returned to the Cutler home on Jan. 7 but he was a different man.
His stamina was gone and he depended more on the oxygen each day.
Culter worked hard to keep her father moving, following the instructions from doctors to help him improve. While he needed oxygen, his levels remained in the normal range. Cutler thought her dad would beat the virus.
On the night of Jan. 11, a Monday, Erstrom played cards with Brennen. No one suspected it would be the last game.
The next day when Erstrom awoke he could barely get out of bed.
The most modest of movements drained him. He asked that his oxygen be turned up.
“He said, ‘I just feel like I can’t get air,’” Cutler said.
Cutler checked the blood oxygen level as her dad sat in a chair in her living room.
“It was where it should be,” said Cutler.
Erstrom’s physical therapist was scheduled to arrive soon so Erstrom prepared to shower. He could barely move.
“He had to stop about every two steps because he didn’t have enough energy to walk. He would stop, sit down and then get back up. My husband helped him into the bedroom to lay down and got oxygen on him and he said, ‘I just need a minute,’” said Cutler.
The Cutlers tested Erstrom’s blood oxygen level again and this time it had dropped into the 70s. An oxygen level between 95 and 100 percent is considered normal and immediate medical attention is recommended for a reading of less than 88.
“We couldn’t stabilize it,” said Cutler.
The Cutlers immediately acted to take Erstrom to the hospital.
The children helped get their grandpa ready for the hospital and into the car.
They would never see him again.
At the St. Luke’s Fruitland Medical Plaza emergency room, medical staff tested Erstrom’s blood oxygen level and alarms on equipment sounded.
“They had to turn everything as high as they could just to get the alarms off,” said Cutler.
Erstrom was tested for a bacterial infection.
He was tested for a blood clot.
Nothing showed up on the tests but Covid, said Cutler.
The doctors, she said, didn’t waste any time.
“They said he is being transported,” said Cutler.
The medical staff asked Erstrom if he would allow himself to be intubated if need be.
“I answered yes before dad can get a word out,” said Cutler.
The ambulance arrived and Cutler was able to give her dad a hug and tell him she loved him.
“That was the last time that I would be able to have a conversation with him that lasted longer than one or two minutes,” said Cutler.
Over the next five days at St. Luke’s Nampa Medical Center, Erstrom appeared to be on the long road back. He was receiving the highest amount of oxygen possible each day, but his levels stabilized around 90 to 95, said Cutler.
Erstrom’s chest X-rays, said Cutler, “looked awful” but he was improving a little bit each day.
Doctors were cautiously optimistic, said Cutler.
“There was hope because they don’t know with this virus. There is no pattern, no way of knowing. They can’t predict. The doctor in the ICU mentioned they do their best but they sit and watch because the virus has a mind of its own,” said Cutler.
Cutler was at home Jan. 18 when Erstrom’s doctor called.
The signs weren’t good.
Erstrom was suddenly declining, his blood pressure was dropping.
He needed to go on a ventilator to save his life, the doctor said.
“His oxygen wasn’t able to be sustained. If they did not intubate him, he would be in cardiac arrest that night,” said Cutler.
The doctor said the family could talk to Erstrom over the phone before they inserted the tube that would prevent Erstrom from speaking.
So that Tuesday, Cutler and her children, Brennan and his sister Alex, 18, cradled the phone in the living room and talked to their grandfather.
“The smallest thing was causing him to be short of breath, beyond being able to speak,” said Cutler.
The conversation was grueling for her children, said Cutler.
She handed the phone to them, aware the conversation might be the last they had with their grandfather.
Erstrom told his grandchildren how important to him they were.
How much he loved them.
How proud of them he was and that he would always be with them.
Afterward, she held them as they cried.
Questions lingered. They were terrified. Grandpa had just been at the house. What was going on?
The next four days were a blur for Cutler and her family. They were isolated from Erstrom and could not see him because of Covid restrictions at the hospital.
So, they waited.
On Jan. 21, Cutler received another phone call from the doctor.
“He had declined more. With the maximum amount of oxygen, he was getting it was in the low 80s. The machines were doing all the work,” said Cutler.
Erstrom’s instruction to his family had always been firm: He did not want to be kept alive by a machine.
The doctor was straightforward with Cutler.
If Enstrom somehow survived, he would be confined to a nursing home the rest of his life.
“His lungs were full, just white,” said Cutler.
It was time to decide.
The doctor, said Cutler, talked to the hospital administrators, arranging for her and her brother Mike to come to the hospital to say goodbye to their father.
“We had to check in at the front. They took us where we needed to be. We went through the ICU and we could see our dad through the window and he looked peaceful,” said Cutler.
Cutler and her brother then met with the team of nurses and doctors caring for their father.
“We walked into a kind of room before his room,” said Cutler.
Cutler donned personal protective equipment – gloves, a gown, a mask.
“I already had glasses on,” said Cutler.
First her brother went into the room and spent time with his father.
Then it was Cutler’s turn.
She said she spent about 10 minutes with her father, but by then he was unconscious.
Then the team of nurses and doctors came in. Erstrom had been placed on his stomach to give his lungs more opportunity to function. Now the medical team carefully rolled him back onto his back.
Niki Cutler doesn’t want discuss whether the virus is real.
“I am tired of hearing it is a made-up government scam,” said Cutler.
Cutler said the images of the doctors and nurses helping her father is seared into her memory. So, too, are their words.
They told her they had lost more people in the last year than in the last ten.
They are tired.
Exhausted, mentally and physically.
“I asked them what any of us could do to help. All they asked was we tell people that all of this is real, that we do what we can to help people understand the true severity,” said Cutler.
The message: People are dying from Covid. Not from a pre-existing condition. Not from the flu. From Covid.
People, they told Cutler, need to understand the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing and “doing research about getting the vaccine,” said Cutler.
Now Cutler and her family struggle with the loss. She doesn’t know how her family will move forward, only that they will.
She knows this, too: Covid is real. It kills. It kills without remorse. It kills old people and young people and brothers and sisters and grandparents.
“I know that it affects everyone differently and praise God more situations do not end like my dad. I know many people will think of reasons to discredit my experience. That’s your right,” said Cutler
She has one question for others.
“Can you look at yourself in the mirror wondering if something that you have done has cost the life of another? Someone you love? If you can, you are a stronger person than I am,” said Cutler.
Friday, Jerry Erstrom was laid to rest at the Valley View Cemetery in Vale.
He was a father.
A man with a smile.
A man who loved his children and grandchildren.
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