When Patty Schachtner learned her father had tested positive for the coronavirus on Nov. 4, she feared the worst.
As the longtime medical examiner in St. Croix County, Schachtner knows all too well the life-threatening danger the contagious coronavirus poses, especially for the elderly and people with underlying health issues like her dad, Richard Rivard.
The 88-year-old former farmer and US Air Force veteran had Alzheimer’s Disease, and for the past two years he had lived at the Hammond Health Services nursing home.
As she investigated a growing number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 since the virus surfaced in Wisconsin in March, Schachtner saw firsthand its deadly toll and all of the lives cut short. She heard about people in hospitals and nursing homes dying without the comfort of family members because of the virus’ contagious nature.
She worried her dad would be added to the growing number of people whose lives the virus claimed, a number that is nearing 4,800 in Wisconsin. Almost 340,000 have died nationally from the virus.
“This was always our biggest worry,” Schachtner told UpNorthNews days after her dad was diagnosed with COVID-19. “My dad had been this big strong man, this big farmer. But I knew he was vulnerable to the virus. I knew it could take him down.”
Donning personal protective equipment each time she went to work, Schachtner feared not only contracting the virus herself but bringing it home to her husband, Joe, who has a number of medical conditions that make him at high risk of having serious complications if he is infected with COVID-19. She also worried about others in her family getting the virus, given that many of them work in the healthcare field.
Despite taking precautions, the virus did reach Schachtner’s family. Nine of her relatives, including her father, have contracted the virus since October.
They aren’t alone. The virus that surfaced last spring in Wisconsin in relatively low numbers grew over summer months and surged this fall, peaking in late October and November. Hospitals were overwhelmed and reported being above capacity with the influx of COVID-19 patients. Nursing homes and other group settings saw outbreaks as the death toll climbed.
Schachtner felt the weight of the surge physically as well as emotionally. As coronavirus numbers increased this fall, her five-member staff struggled to keep up with a rising death investigations list. They worked 12-hours shifts and spent 36 hours a week on backup. One staff member had to quarantine after their spouse became ill with the virus.
Even as COVID-19 numbers have dropped significantly in Wisconsin in recent weeks, death numbers attributed to the virus have remained relatively high, and Schachtner’s department has remained busy, she said.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep up, but it’s been tough, that’s for sure,” she said. “By the end of the day, I’m plenty tired.”
Schachtner was busy this year with another task. She was seeking re-election to the Wisconsin Legislature’s 10th Senate District seat she won unexpectedly in a special election in 2017. In addition to her hectic work schedule, the coronavirus curtailed her election work. Because of the virus’ contagious nature, she refrained from door knocking and gatherings like parades and county fairs that were campaign staples in any other year.
Despite being an incumbent, Sen. Schachtner, a Democrat from Somerset, faced an uphill battle in her Republican-dominated district. She lost to Republican Rob Stafsholt in the Nov. 3 election.
‘Lived Life Fully’
Richard Rivard was an affable man with a personality that matched his large physical stature. He was a dairy farmer in rural Somerset and worked with his hands, which Schachtner said “were the biggest hands you’ve ever seen.”
She recalls standing on one of those oversized hands as a young girl, and her dad lifting her up in the air.
“There are so many fun memories with him,” Schachtner said.
Richard lived life fully. In addition to working hard on the farm and raising his family, he was involved in local issues and was an activist on Democratic Party issues. He was athletic and enjoyed playing on local softball teams. He also was an outdoorsman who enjoyed snowmobiling.
“He was a big guy, very athletic, and really enjoyed being active,” Schachter said of her dad, recalling how he spent part of his 50th birthday celebration waterskiing. “He lived life fully.”
Family was important to her dad, Schachtner said, and he and his wife, Bette, provided child care for all nine of their grandchildren, at times for all of them at once.
“He enjoyed that so much,” Schachtner said of her dad’s affinity for spending time with his grandkids. “When I talk to my kids, that’s what they talk about, their memories with grandma and grandpa. We are so blessed that our kids had that.”
Eventually time caught up with Richard, and the years of toil on the farm began to show. In addition, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and two years ago Schachtner’s family moved their dad into a nursing home.
Despite his condition that adversely impacts brain function and memory, Richard retained the ability to recognize his family, who came often to visit. He also was able to keep reading, one of his beloved activities.
In March, family visits directly with Richard came to a sudden halt, thanks to the coronavirus. Instead of meeting him in person, Schachtner and her family gathered outside her father’s nursing home room and waved to each other through the closed window. They also communicated through Zoom meetings and by calling him on the phone.
It didn’t work as well as talking with him face to face. There were no hugs, no touches of affection. But it was something.
Not being able to meet in person was especially difficult for Bette. She worried about him and longed to be able to give him a hug. She sat on a chair outside his window, conversing as best she could with her husband.
“It was hardest for her,” Schachtner said of her mom. “Not able to see my dad in person since March, that was tough.”
Donned in personal protective equipment from head to toe, Bette sat beside her husband, holding his hand as he prepared to die.
The coronavirus raged through St. Croix County nursing homes in early November, and visitors to Hammond Health Services and other long-term care facilities were prohibited. But Bette had received permission to be with Richard at the end.
His health had deteriorated rapidly in the 10 days since contracting COVID-19. His once-imposing body had shrunk to a shadow of its former self. He hadn’t eaten for days.
As Bette huddled with Richard, Schachtner and her siblings gathered in the cold outside, watching the couple through the window as they consoled each other. When they realized their dad was about to die, the siblings called their sister Pauline, who was in Iowa, so she could join them via phone.
Bette embraced her husband, holding him one last time. Schachtner and her relatives watched as Rivard took his last breath while Rod Stewart’s song “Forever Young” played over the phone from Pauline’s device.
“It was like karma, that beautiful moment,” an emotional Schachtner said of her father’s death. “It’s like it was meant to be this way.”
Despite that meaningful moment, Schachtner is frustrated about her father’s death from COVID-19.
She has heard comments about how the majority of people killed by COVID-19 are elderly and were going to die anyway. She has listened to people question the reality of the virus in the first place, and watched as many have refused public health experts’ advice to wear face masks and engage in social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
She has observed Republican leaders in Wisconsin file repeated challenges in court to orders by Gov. Tony Evers and the state Department of Health Service mandating practices intended to curb the virus, to prevent deaths like her father’s.
“My dad wasn’t supposed to die from this,” Schachtner said. “He was taken from us early. COVID robbed us of time with him. It’s hard to not be angry about it.”
Schachtner is doing her best to move on from her father’s Nov. 14 death. Since then she has continued investigating COVID-19 deaths and others in St. Croix County, hoping to avoid contracting the virus herself. Early Wednesday morning, she heads in to work another 12-hour shift.
She is moving on from her political life as well. On Dec. 14, she was one of 10 Wisconsin residents chosen to cast the state’s Electoral College votes certifying Democrat Joe Biden as president after President Donald Trump contested election results in court. It is likely her last official action as a state Senator. Afterward, she headed for home after cleaning out her office at the state Capitol in Madison.
“I will still be involved with issues,” she said. “It will just be at more of a local level now.”
Despite the many challenges 2020 posed, despite losing her father, Schachtner said she feels guardedly optimistic about the future. She hopes we can move beyond the pandemic with the assistance of vaccines that protect against COVID-19 that have been made available in recent weeks and could reach the general public as soon as this spring.
As she spent her first Christmas without her dad, Schachtner found herself pondering life lessons she learned from him.
“Whatever he did, he was engaged in it, he did it fully,” she said. “He enjoyed life, and that is something I aim to do, too.”
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