A Fond du Lac journal

A year ago, my husband became one of Wisconsin's first COVID-19 patients. This was our experience.

Valerie Thibaudeau Graczyk

Special to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Below is a link directly to the article on the FDL Reporter website. You may need a subscription to view the article.


Editor's note: Valerie Thibaudeau Graczyk of Fond du Lac and her husband, Wayne, own Someday Travel, a tour company which, before the pandemic, regularly took small groups on overseas trips.

Upon returning home on March 2, 2020, from a river cruise in Egypt, the travelers initially showed symptoms of COVID-19, but were told the state would not approve testing, as Egypt was not considered a high-risk country.

Over a period of days, some of the travelers' symptoms progressed, and Egypt was later deemed a high-risk country. The small cruise had 23 people from the tour group on board. Nine of the passengers were from Fond du Lac County and all tested positive for the virus.

As the travelers went about their lives, some of the people with the virus attended events of 100 people or more, according to Fond du Lac County Health Officer Kim Mueller. It was the beginning of the community spread of the coronavirus, and by March 15, Fond du Lac County had the most confirmed cases of any county in the state.

One of the travelers, Dale Witkowski, 55, died March 19 at St. Agnes Hospital. He was the first fatality of coronavirus in Fond du Lac County.

The travelers will never know if the outcome would have been different upon their return had they been provided early testing, isolation and care.

The following is Valerie's account of a turning point in her life, of how everything shifted as COVID-19 spread, and her husband's battle for his life.

A routine trip, on the precipice of a world-wide calamity

We spent seven days floating down the Nile River on a river cruise with 125 travelers from around the world.

Each day was filled with sites of the ancient temples, pyramids and history of Egypt.

We've led tours to well over 35 countries, but we found Egypt to be the most exotic of all — both we and our 20 travelers loved it. The group bonded and celebrated life together through delicious meals, exploring, dancing, laughter and conversation.

Then it ended, abruptly and with great loss.

COVID-19 entered our lives.

When we landed in Chicago, we did not know what we were to experience in the weeks and months ahead. Within hours of returning home, we were calling one another sharing our symptoms. Some travelers had no symptoms, others were coughing, fatigued and experiencing night sweats and elevated temperatures.

I slept for a full day thinking it was jet lag and had no other symptoms. My husband, Wayne, who is co-owner of our travel business, was totally exhausted.

On March 4, when we returned home, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in Egypt, and there was little news coverage.

I called the Fond du Lac County Health Department and shared we had led a tour to Egypt and asked if we should be concerned. The Health Department was following the information given out by the state of Wisconsin at the time, and we were told, “If you do not have an elevated temperature you are free to be out in the community. If we did have tests your group would not be tested because Egypt has no known cases.”

On this advice, we went about our lives.

The first cases of COVID-19 reported in Fond du Lac involved a couple from Maryland, who had tested positive.

(Editor's note: Cesar S. Capule, 49, of Cheverly, Maryland, was the second person to die from complications of the coronavirus. He was working as an IT contractor helping to install a computer system at St. Agnes Hospital, where he later died on March 29. His wife, who also tested positive after he fell ill, told medical investigators she believes they became infected in Washington, D.C., before he flew to Wisconsin.)

As the week of our return continued, Wayne became more ill. He was sleeping all the time, did not eat and was fatigued. Three times in one week he went to Urgent Care and the emergency room. He was given an antibiotic to take and sent home. His temperature was normal, and his oxygen levels were normal.

On March 13, I insisted we go to the emergency room together. Wayne was losing weight. He had no interest in eating. At this early stage, losing your sense of taste and smell were not known symptoms. For the first time we were placed in an isolated room and nursing staff were fully garbed with face shields. Wayne was found to be dehydrated.

I sat there with him for eight hours.

We were finally both tested for COVID-19 — and I had to return the next day and have my test again; it had not been kept refrigerated.

I write every day in my journal and I wrote the following entries:

March 13, 2020

It has been 11 days since our return from Egypt, so much has happened since then. The world has become one big sick room of despair, the media images are overwhelming. We are grateful we made it back when we did, we are grateful we were able to access our local health services when Wayne became ill. Today we receive our test results it will be another recognizing how vulnerable we all are.

The newspapers were full of news about COVID, I read where there was a group of travelers quarantined on a river boat on the Nile. I thought this could have been us. A group of students from Rice University in Houston, Texas were all diagnosed with COVID. They had been traveling in Egypt at the same time we were.

March 14

We are living in a bubble waiting, and while we are waiting, we are witnessing the best of human beings. I need to share the generosity of friends and neighbors. Yesterday we received no less than six phone calls from people wanting to bring us food or run errands for us if needed. Last night at 8:30 a neighbor we know just in passing on our walks called, she is bringing chicken soup today! Neighbors and friends have put their own concerns away to reach out and care about us. We have lived in our community for over 42 years, this is truly what it means to be part of a caring community. I am sitting in the grace and the light and the love. I am blessed even in the darkness.

March 17

New day! Wayne has been in the hospital since Friday night. I left him on a cart after sitting with him for eight hours as he drifted in and out of sleep with an IV drip in his arm. Finally, after considerable advocating and a wonderful ER physician strongly advising me that Wayne had to stay in the hospital, they arranged a bed for him.

I left him at 11:30 p.m. I was told there would be no visitors allowed at Saint Agnes Hospital. I have called the nursing staff regarding his progress every day. Each day I do not know if it will be his last day. He has bacterial pneumonia, and his lungs are cloudy. The nurses are my lifeline. They have been terrific in keeping me fully informed of how he is doing. He is no longer dehydrated, he is drinking fluids and eating a little.

Dale Witkowski

When a person you love is on the brink of dying your world changes. Every word uttered by a nurse or doctor is listened to, pondered and hung onto. I called at the end of each shift and found the nurses very willing to answer my many questions and concerns.

March 18

This is a surreal time; I wake in the morning having to remind myself of what has occurred. I continue to pray for all our travelers and their families and their health.

My days have moved into a gentle routine, I talk with family and friends and our daughters each day. They want to know about Wayne’s progress. I feel supported and cared about.

Sometimes I begin to panic and then I take a deep breath, my prayer is someday we will be able to put this behind us and be together again.

March 19

One of our travelers died of COVID-19 today, Dale Witkowski. He celebrated his 55th birthday on the tour. He was so happy to be in Egypt. He was so outgoing and filled with laughter. We are in shock! Our hearts go out to his family.

(Valerie's note: In June, our travelers gathered wearing masks and socially distancing and planted a tree outside of the gate at Mercury Marine where Dale had been a manager. Dale’s family attended and shared with us who Dale had been and how dedicated he was to his work at Mercury. A plaque was placed at the base of the tree and it is signed “From the Egypt travelers.” Words cannot express our sadness and the grief we share with his loved ones.)

March 20

Dale Witkowski Tree Memorial

Wayne is coming home today; it has been a week! The doctor who cared for Wayne in the hospital believes Wayne will do better at home. Wayne is not eating well, hopefully being at home and eating his favorite foods he will begin to eat more. Each day this physician calls me to tell me about Wayne’s progress. He has been reading the medical reports from Italy and Germany on treatment options of COVID. He is truly the most compassionate, caring concerned person, I am so grateful for him. I pray Wayne can regain his strength, he has lost over 20 pounds and is very weak.

Wayne did come home but slept in his chair most of the day. Three days later we made an appointment at the newly established COVID clinic to be retested for COVID. We were directed to stay in our car and call in and a person would come open the door. It felt very strange, we donned masks and used sanitary wipes before entering. The nurse practitioner looked at Wayne and said, “You are a very sick man!” She did a chest X-ray and he had virial pneumonia. She prescribed another round of antibiotics and said to return in two days. We both believe this intervention saved his life, again. Wayne did improve and his lungs cleared, he began to taste his food and enjoy eating again.

March 27

Today I am hopeful! Spring is here again … new life!

My husband wants to walk in the park today. … Yes, this man who is recovering from COVID-19 wants to go for a walk today. I have hope!

I brought home three bags of colored large balloons for him to blow up and expand his lungs. There are colored balloons all over the house! He made breakfast today by himself, he is eating and drinking again.

Every afternoon we drive to Gilles or A&W for ice cream!

The sky was falling and each day there were lifelines thrown to us … good, good people who called to encourage, to listen, to share their thoughts and love. There were unexpected kindnesses that appeared. A neighbor dropping off groceries, another bringing not once but twice fresh daffodils.

People on my daily walks in our neighborhood, people I did not even know asking about Wayne and one man called out to me and said, “My wife and I are praying for you and your husband.”

The nurses at the clinic yesterday asking me how I was holding up, and saying Wayne is too vibrant, he must get well.

So many emails, so many cards, so many people who love this man and want him to recover.

I am humbled and uplifted by the love that surrounds us. It is truly grace pouring over us and into us. We are held by so many and it is a blessing time of resurrection and Easter joy!

Our local community, state and nation woke up to the reality of a pandemic gradually. A nurse who worked with us shared in a conversation how unprepared the medical community was for COVID. She said because of our early illness it positioned them to be ready earlier than any other neighboring community or city in our state.

A group of our travelers who live in Fond du Lac began to meet to walk twice a week at Lakeside Park. We needed each other, we needed to talk, share our stories and have people around us who understood. We walked all summer sharing our grief, our symptoms, our recovery and our daily lives. We celebrated when asked to donate plasma and shared our antibodies tests results. We bonded in friendship and support. We felt a deep a gratitude to be alive. We had lived through a historical, devastating loss, a world catastrophe. We each knew to our core we had been blessed beyond measure.

April 7

Wayne woke me up this morning and said, “Let’s bring the bikes up from the basement today”! He said: “I am ready to bring closure to this time…”

He has gained six pounds, is not coughing anymore and each day we take a walk together and go further, his energy is returning. He has begun to talk of the future and what he wants to do.

Since March 2, our lives have been on hold, we are now ready to live again, plan again and, yes, dance!

Thank you, family, friends, neighbors, so many of you carried us thru this difficult time.

We are in the blessing of Joy! Thank you, God!

April 21

The ending of our business Someday Travel is devastating. This Friday, April 25, we would have left for Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg with our “Someday” travelers. Normally I would be doing last-minute packing, but not now. As I begin to toss paperwork and brochures for Italy travels in October 2020, I am reminded of the endings that have occurred in the past six weeks. Grief is showing in big and small ways.

Our travel business of 11 years was gone in a week. We felt the loss of the work we have loved. We had three tours planned for 2020 and fortunately we were able to secure full reimbursements for all our travelers. We packed up our office and cancelled tours that had been three years in the planning.

Our travels have introduced us to so many wonderful people who have become friends over the years. Some of them have taken eight to 10 tours with us. As a couple we found joy in running our business together, we recognized one another’s strengths and we supported each other in making “Someday Travel Dreams Come True.”

April 22

Valerie and Wayne after recovering from COVID-19

I refuse to feel sorry for myself, I am recognizing what is gone and how quick it occurred. I am so grateful Wayne is here with me. It could have been quite different. He could have died from COVID. He is still regaining his energy and strength but doing well.

So many events have been cancelled that I had looked forward to; a summer family reunion, a wedding of a good friend’s daughter, a birthday party, people are advised not to gather in large groups. Each day I wake and decide to be gentle with myself. I choose what I will focus on. Each day I strive to be kind, to listen and to find hope. Spring is here, flowers are blooming, and life is unfolding in new ways. I am slowly beginning to trust again.

In the end what carried us through COVID was the kindness, support and love of family, friends and neighbors and our community. It is truly the best of what life has to offer, we were surrounded by a caring community, we were loved and supported in a time of great need. The outpouring of prayers and phone calls and hope given to us will stay with us forever.

January 2021

We are looking to the year ahead, we are reading about the rollout for the vaccine. We are hopeful international travel will return. We have planned two tours. One is for fall 2021 to Sicily and Malta and spring of 2022 will be London, Normandy and Paris.

“Someday” we hope to begin again and make “travel dreams come true” again.