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When Charlie Wachlin couldn’t speak for himself, his wife stepped in to fight for his life

The Wadena man suffered a major setback when COVID-19 put him out of commission during last year's potato harvest.

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Charlie and Diane Wachlin are happily both on their feet in their home south of Wadena in April 2022 following Charlie's battle to return to full health.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal
We are part of The Trust Project.

WADENA — Without an advocate at his side, fighting for his life when he couldn’t, Charlie Wachlin believes he would have died from adverse effects of COVID-19.

Death was absolutely at his door. According to his primary provider, his heart was shocked three different times as his body fought to survive without the help of machines. He was told he was on the brink of death on 12 occasions.

Wachlin, a normally deep voiced, enduro racing, and hard working manager of Wadena’s RDO potato farm, is much more quiet spoken and slower moving than last year as he continues therapy four days a week at Wadena’s Tri-County Health Care. He’s working to rebuild his body to what it was before it basically shut down last October.

“I went from perfect almost, to almost dead,” Wachlin said of his body’s response to getting the virus. He’s never had much for illness in his life and no one can seem to tell him exactly why he responded so poorly to the illness.

“I’ve never been in a hospital a day of my life as far as an injury or sickness or anything, you know,” he said.

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Charlie Wachlin working on his enduro car in a previous Wadena County race.
Contributed photo

Wachlin contracted COVID-19 in September 2021 and was admitted to Lakewood Health System in Staples with COVID pneumonia on Oct. 2. The next day he was airlifted to Sanford Fargo’s ICU with respiratory failure. He ended up spending 122 days away from home struggling to regain enough strength to breathe, talk, walk and do all the things he’s done as a husband, father, grandpa and as leader in his work place.

“My lung capacity may never be what it was,” Wachlin said from his home south of Wadena. Even so, he’s now able to be back to work and back home with his family. His grandchild Brinley is a fixture on his lap, eager to share smiles and laughter with grandpa. The illness and restrictions in place kept him separated from most of his family for nearly five months.

At the time of contracting COVID, his family had been sick, with mostly mild symptoms. As per usual, Wachlin wasn’t one to let a little cold keep him from getting the potato harvest complete. The fall is a time for all hands on deck as the largest labor force of the potato season comes together to get the crop from the fields.

But when the symptoms persisted and pneumonia set in, things shifted drastically for Wachlin. He only felt ill for about four days, he said. In the intensive care unit, it became so bad that Wachlin’s wife Diane was asked about Charlie’s directives and had a doctor tell her there was nothing more they could do after Charlie had shown zero improvements for weeks. She was adamant that there must be something to do. She did what she could, including calling around for other options. She spent long days encouraging Charlie and at times, frustratingly pushing him to keep fighting. She missed just five days at his side throughout the ordeal, only to allow others to stop by and spend time with Charlie.

“Without her they probably would have shut the machines off,” Charlie said.

That’s just what one doctor suggested in November, that Charlie’s ventilator be stopped.

But Charlie said he had no other organ failures other than his lungs and the virus that had overtaken them. So why not keep fighting.

Some said it wasn’t worth fighting. Some said if he did make it, he’d be on oxygen in a nursing home the rest of his life. his condition was so bad he couldn’t be transported elsewhere, so Diane fought to get second opinions and find out what else they could do.

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“I’m like, you gotta try something, what do we have to lose? You’re already telling me we should shut the machines off,” she recalled saying to hospital staff during their ICU stay.

Diane said his body was fighting the oxygen machine and he contracted pneumonia three times during the ordeal. After some adjustments to the ventilation machine, he showed signs of improvements. The fighting was well worth it.

When Charlie came around, he had no idea he'd been out of a conscious state for a couple months. It was a lot to take in. Cognitively, he was in good shape, but his body was extremely weak and numb.

It took some threats of finger nail painting, poking and prodding and no more back rubs to get Charlie to do some things he didn’t want to do, according to Diane.

She’d been trying to get a good reaction out of him for many days and it wasn’t until he welcomed her with “kissy lips” that she felt he’d finally made a turn for the better. It was a moment they both treasure.

Community members can take part in picking their own potatoes from the field September 24-26.

Even with his spirits lifted, it would be a long road ahead for Charlie. He had been stationary so long he’d lost the feeling in his legs and had to build up strength to walk again. Through physical therapy, it was pain in his extremities that gave him the feeling that he was gradually getting his feeling back. Toe-by-toe, he started to make small movements again. After starting physical therapy in January, Charlie still had a brace for his drop foot in April, but other than the occasional use of a cane, he was able to get around well and was happy to be on his way to full recovery.

Charlie’s message to others out there is simple but difficult.

Keep fighting and get yourself an advocate.

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Diane never had a moment where she was ready to give up after 27 years with her husband.

The two do pretty much everything together, including both working for the same company. They have four children together: Alex, 24; Morgan, 21; Chase, 19; and Ethan 18. They don’t have grand plans of doing anything too wild now that Charlie is back on his feet. More time relaxing together is something they can both agree on for now.

Charlie is ever thankful to his wife for supporting him through it all. The community stepped up to show support and prayers in his time of need. The couple is very thankful for that show of support, which was needed on the hardest days they've seen so far. His workplace was also supportive in telling him that whatever he needed to do, they would accommodate him. He returned to full time in late April as the crew geared up for another planting season. His team is eager to have him back.

“Charlie is an important member of the R.D. Offutt team," according to Warren Warmbold, Vice president of R.D. Offutt Farms. "For 24 years, he’s done an outstanding job of leading the Wadena farm and serving the broader community. We are thrilled that he is on the path to full recovery and very happy he’s back at the farm office.”

Charlie and his team were recognized in 2020 for being named Lamb Weston’s 2020 Large Grower of the Year for its Park Rapids’ potato processing plant.

He’s among a year-round group of about 10 employees that expands to about 70 during the harvest season. He’s thankful to be a part of the process again this season.

Midway through the pandemic’s third year, the changing measures of the COVID-19 outbreak have made it trickier to understand how much coronavirus is circulating and the prospects for another surge.

Wachlin’s long fight to recovery

  • Oct. 2: Charlie Wachlin was admitted to Lakewood Health System with COVID pneumonia.
  • Oct. 3: He is airlifted to Sanford Fargo’s ICU with respiratory failure.
  • Oct. 21: He was removed from the COVID ICU unit and into standard ICU.
  • Nov. 27: He took his first breaths on his own.
  • Dec. 17: Left Sanford ICU in Fargo and entered West Fargo Sanford’s Vibra Rehab.
  • Dec. 21: He was allowed to start swallowing water and ice chips.
  • Jan. 5: He was brought to a Post Acute Medical Rehab center in Fargo to begin new rehab.
  • Jan. 6: He was able to stand up without assistance from a lift for the first time.
  • Jan. 9: He passed on cognitive tests – no more speech therapy.
  • Jan. 11: Charlie took his first steps in three months using a Vector machine that helps support him while he walks. He walked 90 feet over three sessions.
  • Jan. 17: After three hours of therapy, and wearing shoes for the first time since October, he said this was the first time he actually felt normal again.
  • Feb. 1: Charlie got to come home after 122 days away, 66 of which were on a ventilator.
  • March 18: He began going back to work part-time and enjoys getting out and about.
  • April 2022: Charlie returns to work full-time.
He's a writer, editor, photographer, truth seeker and promoter of the Wadena area.
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