A cautionary tale: American couple who moved to N.B. warns of severity of COVID-19

An American couple who now live in Moncton are pleading with New Brunswickers to take the fourth wave of COVID-19 more seriously.

By all accounts, Ben O’Donnell was a very healthy man. In February of 2020, he was training at his home in Minnesota for his second Ironman triathlon and had just received a clean bill of health from his doctor.

“I was running probably two to three miles, or about a five kilometres three, four times a week at that point. Just starting to get ready for my race later in the year in November,” said O’Donnell from his backyard in Moncton, N.B.

Things took a turn less than two weeks later. At the time, he was still living in the United States and was flying home from a business trip when he started feeling unwell. On February 29, he had a fever of 102 degrees.

Four days later he went to the hospital but says he was unable to be tested for COVID-19 as all testing equipment was at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA. O’Donnell says he was told to keep hydrated and discharged that same day.

However, on March 9, O’Donnell went back to the hospital after having more difficulty breathing. He says this time he was able to get tested for COVID-19, but before his results were available, he was placed on a ventilator and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation life support (ECMO), an external machine that takes over the work of the lungs.

“I was 12 days on life support, I was 14 or 15 days on a ventilator and throughout that time, I also had liver failure and kidney failure so I was also on dialysis for about 21 of my 28 days,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell, who was just 38 years old at the time and an otherwise extremely healthy athlete, spent 28 gruelling days in hospital battling the fatal virus. But he still considers himself lucky, saying he was simply tasked with getting better, whereas his loved ones at home were left worrying if he’d survive.

“I didn’t have to live through the worst part of it wondering if I would make it or not. My family lived through that,” said O’Donnell.

His wife, Deanna O’Donnell, was under quarantine with their young daughter and unable to visit him in hospital.

“I remember getting off the phone and it starting to hit me as to the gravity of the situation and what this could mean in terms of would he be around to see our daughter grow up and would I be able to touch him again?” recalls Deanna.

Thankfully, after a long and exhausting recovery that is still far from over, he did survive. He was discharged from the hospital on April 6th, 2020, but still faced an uphill battle. O’Donnell says he needed oxygen to complete even simple daily tasks, like walking to the mailbox, for weeks after getting home.

Despite the challenges, the former college fullback worked to regain his strength through physical therapy and was cleared to compete in his second Ironman triathlon in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 22, 2021.

But as cases continued to rise in their home state, the couple decided to make a change for the safety of their family. After seeing the success of the “Atlantic Bubble” last summer and the low case numbers across the Maritimes, the pair made the move to Moncton, New Brunswick in August of last year.

“We were seeing what both public health and the people of this area were doing to keep each other safe and to me, that was very, very intriguing and appealing,” says O’Donnell.

Now, as the fourth wave crashes into the province and hospitalizations begin to overwhelm the health care system, the couple worries their new home may not be the safe haven they originally considered it.

“It’s disappointing and scary that people might be making choices that put the community in jeopardy from a health standpoint,” said Deanna. “There is a lot of anxiety tied up into seeing the cases going up the way that they’re going and to see the ICU and hospital capacities being taken up.”

O’Donnell says he has a simple message for those not taking the pandemic as seriously as they should.

“We can wear masks, we can get vaccines… is it going to be 100% preventable? Nothing is 100%, there will always be some level of this here, but we need to be able to do what we can and right now, the best tools we have against this are masks and vaccines and social distancing,” said O’Donnell.

A strong plea from a man who saw the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and survived to tell his cautionary tale.