Mayo employee recovers from COVID-19, now helping others affected by the virus

ONALASKA, Wis. (WKBT)- One of the first cases of COVID-19 in La Crosse County was a Mayo Clinic Health System employee. And the virus spread to members of her family.

They have all since recovered and now they’re giving back to help others who may be struggling with the virus down the road.

A friendly, yet competitive game of cards is how Kari Houser and her family from Onalaska like to help pass the time at home these days.

“We were really lucky,” said Kari. Not necessarily in the card game, but in the hand she and her family were dealt with COVID-19.

“I never in a million years would’ve guessed it”

Kari first noticed something was a little off while doing yard work on a Saturday in early to mid-March.

“I just didn’t feel quite right, I didn’t feel bad, I just didn’t feel quite right. I had a little bit of achiness and I thought, ‘oh shoot, it’s from bending over in the flower beds, or from raking, I just overdid it.'”

Although Kari doesn’t work directly with patients in her position as an Operations Manager at Mayo La Crosse, she wanted to make sure the symptoms she was experiencing weren’t something to be concerned about.

“Working in a health care setting, the last thing you want to do is be the person who spreads it to other people.”

Because she’s considered a health care worker, Kari met the requirements at the time to get tested.

“I got a phone call from an infectious disease doctor in Rochester that I was positive and I was shocked, so super surprising.”

Kari’s husband, who was also having the same symptoms at the same time, was never tested but presumed to be positive.

Kari said, “I think the symptom that was most prevalent to us was just being unusually tired, just lethargic. It was very,very mild, we never required any medical care. I think we expected it to be different than it was, we expected it to be something you go ‘oh yeah, this is it.'”

Their 20-year-old daughter Claire, a University of Minnesota student, and her boyfriend were home and developed symptoms as well.

“Come here to social distance and self isolate and all of that and then got the virus in my own house,” said Claire.

She also tested positive while her boyfriend did not. Her younger brother, 17-year-old Carter, never developed any symptoms.

“When they released us from our isolation, we were all basically told we were all presumed positive and Carter would’ve been asymptomatic, but likely positive,” said Kari.

Public health officials told Kari they believe she and her husband picked up the virus the weekend prior to showing symptoms when they were at a hockey tournament in Milwaukee, an area that is considered a “hot spot” in the state.

“Drove there and stood by ourselves. This was still really early in the process, no known cases that we knew of, the travel restrictions were to other countries at that point.”

“You just start going, did I touch a door handle? Did I, was it the soda dispenser? You just start to second guess yourself”

Even though they’re well past their isolation period and are presumed immune from the virus at this point, they’re all still following guidelines themselves and are hoping others do too.

“Take every precaution, we thought that’s what we were doing, but it was obviously too late so I think my biggest piece of advice would be just to assume that every time you’re leaving the house, you’re being exposed ,” said Claire.

And while this experience hasn’t been easy on any of them, it’s also allowed them time to reflect on just how lucky they are.

“You go through really difficult things like this, you just, I think you feel compelled to figure out how you can be a part of helping,” said Kari.

One way they’re doing that is by signing up to donate plasma as Mayo Clinic in Rochester is leading efforts to collect plasma from patients who’ve recovered from the virus, which in turn can help others who find themselves in a more serious condition.

“There’s antibodies in the blood of those who have been infected and those antibodies can help those who are critical because of the illness or at high risk due to the illness,” said Kari.

Mayo Clinic will be the lead institution providing coordinated access to investigational convalescent plasma. Mayo, along with several other world-renowned medical facilities and government agencies, are seeking to establish a national convalescent plasma program to modify the course of disease.

As for Kari and her family, they’ve also given back by donating money and time to WAFER food pantry during this difficult time for so many.

“We’re now at no risk to ourselves and no risk of spreading the virus to anyone else so I think we’re really in a unique position to be able to do things that others aren’t able to do,” said Claire.

“When really bad things happen, humanity really shows some remarkable humaness,” said Kari.

While Kari and her family experienced only minor to moderate symptoms, everyone reacts differently to the virus, which is clear by the number of hospitalizations and deaths.

She says their case just goes to show that you could be infected and spreading the virus without even knowing it, which is why it’s so important to take precautions and follow the guidelines.