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Alexandria native was young and healthy . . . until COVID-19 almost killed him

Triathlete's recovery gains national attention and Ben O’Donnell wants to compete in triathlons again.

Ben O'Donnell's nearly fatal battle with COVID-19 has baffled medical professionals. The 38-year-old triathlete is taking part in national studies to help determine why it hit him so hard. He's also vowing to run another triathlon this fall to support others who haven't been as lucky. Submitted photo

In mid-February, after a two-day long physical examination, doctors gave Ben O’Donnell the thumbs up to start training for his second Ironman triathlon, an intense show of physical fitness involving a two-and-a-half mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a marathon run.

Less than a month later, O’Donnell would be fighting just to live another day.

The Alexandria native was just the third person in the state to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and the first to end up in the ICU. He’s an unlikely candidate to be ravaged by the virus — only 38 years old and in good physical condition with no underlying health conditions. Yet, after being hospitalized for nearly a month, he continues to try and get back what COVID-19 took from him, and he’s vowing to run the Ironman again for those who haven't been as lucky.


'Everything felt off'

Talk of COVID-19 in the U.S. was heating up as O’Donnell, a chemist at a water treatment chemical company in the Twin Cities, took off for a business trip to Colorado and Texas the week of Feb. 28.

“I wasn’t thinking of taking all of these precautions because at that point they were talking about people over 65 being most at risk,” he said. “I wasn’t wearing a mask in the airport. I was washing my hands, but don’t know how careful I was about not touching my face.”

Still, he never dreamed it would make a difference.

"I want to give hope to those that are going through it, those that have gone through it, and those that are not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," said virus survivor Ben O’Donnell.. Photo courtesy: Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune

By the time his wife, Deanna, also a chemist, picked him up at the airport a few days later, he said “everything felt off." He chalked it up as just being rundown from being on the road, but when he learned he had a fever of 102, he isolated himself from his wife and their young daughter, on the off chance it could be COVID-19. At that point, he didn’t even qualify to get a test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus because he didn’t know anyone who could have exposed him. So he stayed home sick and very tired for a week.

“I would get tired walking the dog around the house, going to the bathroom. I’d get winded and need 15 minutes to recover,” he said.


As the week went on, his symptoms worsened and now included a cough and gastrointestinal problems. He stopped eating.

By March 9, Deanna drove him to the hospital with the hope they could just give him some fluids and send him home. That wasn’t the case.

“At 9:30 a.m. March 9th, I waved goodbye to my wife. That was the last time I saw her for 28 days,” he said.

Chest X-rays showed O’Donnell’s lungs were 80 to 90% full of fluid, and the oxygen level in his blood was dangerously low. By the next day, O’Donnell was put on a ventilator, but his numbers were still not improving. Doctors asked Deanna for permission to put Ben on an ECMO heart-lung pump, a last ditch effort to get oxygenated blood to the heart, since his lungs were no longer doing the job. Doctors were clear with Deanna — the odds were not in their favor for either long term recovery or even surviving the procedure itself.

“It was difficult. Within 24 hours of dropping him off, I was giving permission to doctors to perform a procedure on him that the odds were 50-50 he’d survive,” Deanna said.

'My mind went to a dark place'

O’Donnell had to be heavily sedated while he was on the pump so he wouldn’t pull the tube out of his neck. During that time, he says his mind went to “a dark place.” To him, he was no longer in the hospital. He felt surrounded by masked people involved in human trafficking. He believed he saw dead bodies on the ceiling.

“But I was always thinking ‘How can I escape? How can I find a way to get out?’” O’Donnell said. “Working with my counselor, now we think that was basically my mind’s way of trying to fight against the virus.”

After a week of hallucinations, a hug from his sister — a nurse who was allowed to visit at the time — helped the visions go away, and he woke up.


O’Donnell became the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. to live after ECMO. He was taken off the pump March 22 and released from the hospital on April 6.

Ben O'Donnell rested after he walked on his treadmill to regain his strength at his home in Anoka County on Friday, April 17. Photo courtesy: Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune

The road back

O'Donnell, who played both football and baseball at Concordia College in Moorhead before becoming a triathlete, had lost 45 pounds during his time in the hospital. Most of it, he said, is muscle from his arms, legs and chest. The man who had already completed one triathlon in 2017 and was planning for another this fall in Arizona, was now happy just to go for short walks.

“My first walk was six or seven minutes at one mile per hour on the treadmill,” he said. “Even then I needed oxygen.”

O’Donnell said he had pretty much given up hopes of doing the triathlon in November until he received a message of congratulations from “The Voice of Ironman” Mike Reilly.

“I decided after that to just put it out there as a goal,” O’Donnell said.


Anoka County resident Ben O'Donnell and his wife, Deanna, took their daily walk to get the mail on Friday, April 17, 2020. This was the first day O'Donnell was able to make it without a walker, however, he used an oxygen machine. He is now off the oxygen machine and hopes to run a 5K in a couple of weeks as he trains for the triathlon in November. Photo courtesy/Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune

He’s doing a 5K in a couple of weeks. Deanna says while her husband is certainly not reckless with his training, she says she has to remind him once in a while that he wasn’t released from the hospital that long ago.

O’Donnell says he’s fortunate his body is recovering relatively quickly from his COVID-19 ordeal. That’s the main reason he wants to compete for others.

“How lucky am I to be able to walk like this, to breathe like this, to be able to come back like this? Others are six to eight weeks out of the hospital and can't even lift their arms,” O’Donnell said.

For that reason, O’Donnell is working with Ironaid, the Ironman Foundation to help raise money for COVID-19 relief by helping health-related non-profits and others. To learn more visit O’Donnell’s page. On the page, he details some potential projects that could be funded through donations.

Attracting national attention

O’Donnell’s case is attracting attention far outside The Land of 10,000 Lakes. He was interviewed for a recent Diane Sawyer news special on ABC, and ESPN is documenting his journey back to the triathlon.

“It’s weird. My wife and I are both very private people,” he said. “Doing stories like this is not in our DNA, but we thought with my story, it was too important not to tell.”


Ben O'Donnell says his wife Deanna might have had it worse than he did during his COVID ordeal as she was unable to see him or even the doctors and nurses in person. He says they explained to their young daughter that Daddy had to be in the hospital because he caught some "tiger germs" while he was away on a business trip. Submitted photo

And it’s not just national media that’s come calling. He’s working with the National Institutes of Health to help get answers about COVID-19 and how to fight it.

“They still don’t know why it hit me so hard. I’m taking part in studies where they study my genetics or see if there is some condition we don’t know about and explain why it hit me so hard,” he said.

Additionally, O’Donnell’s antibodies were used to create the University of Minnesota’s antibody test to help people figure out if they might have had a past infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. Deanna and the O’Donnell’s daughter are getting an antibody test even though they have so far tested negative for the virus.

A me ssage of h op e

As difficult as this has been for the O’Donnell’s, they are trying to send a message of hope about Ben’s COVID journey. They say getting a positive diagnosis or being put on a ventilator or ECOM isn’t the end, there’s always a way forward.

O’Donnell says words he heard from an announcer at his first triathlon are just as meaningful during this pandemic.

“He said, ‘Don’t stop, don’t quit, keep moving forward.’ That has been my mantra,” O’Donnell said. “Putting one foot in front of the other, whether it’s in a chair putting one foot in front of each other or whether you can walk, just try and get that little bit better every day.”


Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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