COVID survivor returns to North Memorial to thank caregivers

Rick Ulrich stared blankly at Room 769, with no memory of the three weeks he spent there on a ventilator in 2020, struggling to breathe and unable to stand as he battled COVID-19.

On Thursday, the 62-year-old from Norwood Young America walked into North Memorial Health Hospital, returning for the first time in 2½ years to the intensive care unit to thank the health care workers who stayed by his side as he fought for his life.

As a pianist played "What a Wonderful World" in the lobby, Ulrich delivered sandwiches to the Robbinsdale hospital's ICU staff as a small token of gratitude for all they've endured during the pandemic. He chose to do it during National Nurses Week.

COVID rules have long restricted hospital visitors, and North Memorial finally lifted its mask mandate in April. On Thursday, the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration expired nationwide.

Even with no recollection of his worst days there, Ulrich wanted to meet the health care workers who remember him. They helped the father of three survive so he could make new memories — walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding in 2021, retiring from a 38-year career in April, looking forward to welcoming his third grandchild soon.

"It's a good reminder of the work we did, the success stories," physical therapist Panagiotes Nelson-Nikolaides said.

A few patients remain hospitalized at North Memorial with COVID, but the number of people dying from the virus has dropped significantly in Minnesota. Since 2020, more than 14,000 Minnesotans have died from COVID, according to the state Health Department.

For Ulrich, coming so close to death haunts him.

"All the people who didn't make it. Why did I?" he said, as he hugged and thanked tearful health care workers.

Ulrich couldn't stand up when he was in the ICU. Now, he walks 5 miles with his wife around the lake by their camper. Since retiring from his job at a medical supplier, he's been picking up part-time warehouse work at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia. That's where he was hospitalized with COVID in November 2020 before being transported on a ventilator to North Memorial before Thanksgiving.

"I don't know if I'm waking up again," he recalled thinking then. "Is this it? This can't be how this ends."

As COVID cases spiked in Minnesota that fall, Ulrich was hospitalized for more than two months at three hospitals. Restaurants and bars were shut down to try to limit the spread of the virus as the state and nation grappled with shortages of hospital beds.

Ulrich only remembers part of his stay at North Memorial after being taken off the ventilator. Still, he said, "it never leaves my mind."

Neither does the post-traumatic stress for the health care workers who were on the pandemic's frontlines. Many of Holly Vilione's nursing colleagues in the "South Seven" wing of the ICU have moved on to other units after witnessing too many COVID deaths.

"It feels like we have dead bodies on our shoulders," said a tearful Vilione, who lost her mother-in-law to the virus. "We remember every one. Our PTSD is very real."

Ulrich couldn't have visitors when he was hospitalized, so Vilione would call his wife, Deb, with updates on his condition. Their families grew close, exchanging texts after Rick was released to go home at the end of January 2021. The Ulrichs even invited Vilione to their daughter's wedding that year.

"They're really our angels here on Earth," Deb Ulrich said, adding to Vilione: "You stayed in the fight."

For Vilione, the Ulrich family was a "ray of light" during a dark time, bringing purpose and gratitude amid so much pain and loss.

"They're one of the reasons I've stayed," she said. "No one else came back to see us. They really understand how much we did. It just means a lot."