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Walking in the darkness: Living through the year of COVID in southwest Montana

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Irene Dahl has a favorite motto: “Whatever the family needs.”

She is the funeral director at Dahl Funeral and Cremation Service. She always wants to accommodate those grieving as best she can.

This year, it’s been difficult.

Some families have held ceremonies with smaller numbers and social distancing. Some have broadcasted funerals electronically. Others have postponed services. But for how long? It’s already been nine months since the pandemic hit the United States.

The coronavirus has stolen from people. Memories. Gatherings. Lives. Dahl has seen it firsthand. It’s heartbreaking.

“I’d be lying to you if I told you they weren’t struggling with it. It’s been really hard,” Dahl said. “To not be able to give them a hug, ... it’s a struggle.”

Dahl Funeral and Cremation Services and COVID 19

From left, Irene Dahl, Cheyloe Forbes, Charlie Fisher and Ada Wells.

As the calendar flips to 2021, there’s hope, with vaccines on the way. But this has been a challenging year. Everyone’s been forced to adjust. For some, it’s small — like wearing a mask while grocery shopping. For others, it’s big — like not being able to hug loved ones during life’s most precious moments.

Dahl takes solace in knowing how her coworkers have adapted. They’ve had to. That’s what COVID-19 has taught them.

At first, Dahl and the staff were scared. When handling bodies, they didn’t know if the virus could spread from the deceased.

Dahl has had to drive to other states about five times to pick up people who just died. Fewer passengers are flying into Bozeman’s airport, so companies have used smaller planes that don’t have enough cargo space to take extra bodies.

The staff members have had to learn new safety methods. Instead of filling out paperwork in person, they’ve used electronic signatures. Luckily, Dahl said, the funeral home was remodeled a few years ago, so people could spread out farther at services with limited attendance.

They’ve also looked for joy in the little things. Like sharing a laugh in their weekly meetings.

“The silver lining is it’s taught us a lot about ourselves,” Dahl said, “and how we can be flexible and resilient.”

But with growth comes pain, and there’s been a lot of that too.

———

When the coronavirus slammed the United States in March, Montana was one of the last states to report a positive case, doing so on March 13.

Cancellation after cancellation followed. Concerts, basketball tournaments, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Toilet paper aisles emptied. People said things like “unprecedented times” and “new normal” ad nauseum.

Schools closed. So did restaurants and bars. Gov. Steve Bullock issued a stay-at-home order.

Closures were intended to curtail the virus’ spread and protect the health care system. They helped weather Montana’s first virus wave in March and they also led to other problems. Businesses struggled. Unemployment shot up. Mental health issues arose. Friction escalated.

Rules were loosened late in the spring. Then came a second wave in July. The surge in October and November, by far the worst of the three, strained hospitals and health care workers even further, leading officials to order stricter restrictions again.

More than 325,000 Americans and 915 Montanans have died of COVID-19. Gallatin County has reported 37 coronavirus-related deaths. More than 8,500 people in the county have recovered, but the long-term effects are unknown.

When Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley was asked to characterize the last nine months, he deadpanned: “Long.”

Matt Kelley Portrait

Matt Kelley, the Gallatin City-County health officer, stands for a portrait.

Kelley has been the face of the local response. He’s taken heat for being too strict or too lenient, depending on who you ask. Protesters gathered outside his house for 19 days. Others rallied in downtown Bozeman to show him support.

“In the beginning, this was a new thing. There was a very real togetherness,” Kelley said. “I think there’s been more divisiveness. I’ve felt that personally.”

Matt Kelley Supporters, Downtown

Cal Harrington and a handful of others show their support of Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley on Dec. 8, 2020, in downtown Bozeman. Harrington said he was out on Tuesday because he thinks "around the state health officials are not getting the support they deserve."

In November, Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte was elected governor. He’s hinted at wanting to eliminate the state’s mask mandate. When he takes office Jan. 4, statewide rules could shift significantly.

Since Montana State University’s fall semester ended, cases in Gallatin County have decreased. Fewer cases means less death.

Vaccines are beginning to be distributed, an encouraging sign. Some doctors, hospital workers and school nurses have already received their first shots.

But this process is long, too. They’ll still need a second dose 28 days later, and it’s still going to be a while before the vaccines are readily available for everyone.

“I try to remain optimistic but also realistic. There’s reasons to be satisfied,” Kelley said. “... But we’re still seeing a significant number of cases and we need people to really continue to take this seriously.”

———

COVID-19 starts different for everybody.

Shiloh Klatt began feeling “a bit of a plugged up nose.” Then he had a bad headache for a day or two. Then he lost his sense of taste.

By late June, Klatt assumed he had COVID-19. Klatt, 48, lives in Ennis, is a CPA and also runs the Royal 7 Motel in Bozeman. Since the motel was undergoing major renovations, Klatt continued going to work after the onset of symptoms. But he made sure to isolate from other people even though he never took a test.

Since he felt his symptoms weren’t severe, and since he had been away from others for 10 days, Klatt met up with friends and family on July 3 in West Yellowstone, where he grew up.

“I had this thing for 10 days with very minor symptoms, how could I get sick?” Klatt thought.

He had no idea what was coming.

That night, Klatt was out until about 2 a.m. drinking. He woke up with a bad hangover, like he would any other Fourth of July, and spent the rest of the day enjoying the holiday.

The next morning, he again woke up tired. He had a hard time changing bed linens because he couldn’t breathe very well. He felt sicker and sicker. He struggled rolling over in bed to reach for a glass of water. His lungs felt small.

Klatt’s daughter and longtime friend urged him to get help. He reluctantly went to Bozeman Health Deaconness Hospital. He immediately tested positive for COVID-19.

“And the doctors and the nurses were like, ‘You’ll be lucky if you live through this,’” Klatt said.

Klatt’s oxygen level was dangerously low, around 50%. He remembered a doctor telling him the only other patient with symptoms as severe as his ended up dying.

He was put in the intensive care unit and hooked up to receive plasma and remdesivir.

“Had I not gone to the hospital that night,” Klatt said, “I just wouldn’t have made it.”

The treatment began working. But since there were no exterior windows and Klatt was so isolated, he began feeling stir crazy. He told hospital workers his mental health was suffering.

Klatt was moved to a room upstairs after five days in the ICU. A window let sunlight in. He could see the lawn and the Bridgers.

“Serious sense of euphoria,” Klatt said. “All of a sudden, I could see light.”

Shiloh Klatt, COVID-19 Survivor

Shiloh Klatt, a COVID-19 survivor who was in the hospital for seven days, five of which were spent in the Intensive Care Unit, stands next to the hotel that has been in his family since 1972. Klatt says being on his deathbed made him realize what was really important. He said, "it makes you realize how important your connections are with the people you care about."

Two days later, after seven days total in the hospital, Klatt was able to go home.

He still couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. He received a prescription for oxygen and needed that for another month. During the time at home, Klatt didn’t do much other than lie on his couch.

The worst part was wondering if he’d spread the virus to his loved ones.

“The stress of that was worse than being sick,” Klatt said.

He called himself lucky that no one he came in contact with tested positive.

Before his bout with COVID-19, Klatt questioned how serious it could be. He believed it was a problem but wasn’t sure if it was being overblown.

Now, he hears people questioning science and complaining about having to wear face masks and he thinks about himself.

“At this point, knowing what I’ve gone through, it sounds so silly to listen to,” Klatt said. “I can’t believe how politicized (it’s become) and how this pandemic has brought out such extreme viewpoints.”

Once Klatt recovered, with the security of having immunity, he took a trip to Colombia and the Amazon rainforest. He survived his greatest challenge and celebrated.

Klatt now tries to live more in the present because he saw how fragile life could be. When his life was at risk, he thought about the people he’s closest to.

And his comeback wouldn’t have been possible without the doctors and nurses who helped him.

“I admire the people that work in that environment and put themselves out on the line for other people,” Klatt said. “It’s inspirational.”

Eric Strader

Rev. Eric Strader speaks during his church's Christmas Eve service. 

———

When Rev. Eric Strader, the lead pastor at Bozeman United Methodist Church, reflects on 2020, he remembers the chaotic moments.

He also thinks about the opportunity that was presented.

He once walked into his house three months into the pandemic and wanted to scream. His office had been turned into a school room for his kids. His wife set up a tent in the living room for them to play in. Toys were scattered across the kitchen floor. The guest bedroom had turned into a makeshift office. His dogs and cat were hiding in his bedroom because of all the disruption.

And yet, Strader thought, he could still find peace.

“The world kept moving. The sun rose the next day,” Strader said. “Life didn’t stop just because there was chaos we could not control.”

When the pandemic changed things, Strader’s church quickly invested in cameras and digital production software. On March 15, a group of 23 people, all in their 80s and 90s, met up virtually for Sunday school. They all troubleshooted how to get Zoom to work.

It's human nature to crave a connection with other people. Even though it wasn’t in person, the need was met. Months later, the use of technology continued to symbolize adaptability.

Strader pre-recorded his Christmas Eve sermon at a barn with goats and chickens around him. He paced around, wearing a flannel shirt and a beanie, as the sun set in the background. The service played Thursday night on Youtube with 50 screens watching the link at once.

Strader explained the nativity scene and how his interpretation is that the moment was messy.

Kind of like now.

“We have always been a people who walk in the darkness,” Strader said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.