A soldier and combat veteran triumphs in battle with COVID-19

May 8, 2020
Keith Klaehn and his wife, Elizabeth, photographed in Alaska
Keith Klaehn, a veteran who triumphed in battle with COVID-19, and his wife, Elizabeth, photographed in Sitka, Alaska. Photo, courtesy Keith Klaehn

Keith Klaehn came to UCHealth Memorial Hospital North squared away, like a soldier.

He carried a small suitcase that contained clothing and shaving gear. Somehow, Klaehn knew when he walked through the door that he’d be spending the night.

He had a hard time catching his breath, and his temperature was rising. Since no one was in the Emergency Department, Klaehn was tested immediately for COVID-19 and within in an hour, he had results.

For the next month, Klaehn, a former Army Command Sergeant Major (the highest rank for an enlisted soldier in the military) and combat veteran, fought an enemy unseen, the novel coronavirus. He enlisted help from a new army, nurses, doctors, techs, respiratory therapists and physical therapists – and chaplains – to see him through a war that ended with a soldier’s ultimate dream: Homecoming.

“Words alone cannot adequately express my deep appreciation and gratitude for all the professionals here at Memorial North. Even as an old soldier, I don’t know that I have seen courage like I’ve seen here,’’ Klaehn said.

“It’s almost cliché by now, but it is an invisible enemy. And as such, that is where I call upon the word courage. It is one thing to into battle against someone who probably doesn’t have the technology that you have, because we’re almost certainly going to be given the chance to see the enemy. It is something entirely different when you are wading through this cesspool of things that you cannot see, and to try to battle in that fashion.’’

Klaehn, a businessman who owns a successful real estate company in the Pikes Peak Region served 21 years in the Army. He’s been “retired’’ from the Army for 21 years and serves as chair of the Defense Mission Task Force, a volunteer position aligned with the Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Council. In that role, Klaehn works alongside a multitude of other community leaders to ensure economic vitality for the region’s five military bases and to provide the highest possible quality of life for servicemembers and their families.

“I can’t say enough about Keith,’’ said Ron Fitch, chief administrative officer for Pikes Peak Regional Hospital and vice president of Operations and Military Affairs for UCHealth Memorial Hospital. A former garrison commander at Fort Carson, Fitch has served with Klaehn on the Chamber’s Defense Mission Task Force.

“Keith is the community link to all of our local bases and the local, state and federal governments. He’s done wonderful things for Colorado Springs and the military and he does it all on his own time for the benefit of the community,’’ Fitch said.

Klaehn spent 26 days at Memorial after arriving April 4. First, he was seen on a medical floor, then taken to the ICU and placed on a ventilator. He is now recovering at home.

His condition declined rapidly during the early days in the hospital. He began to frantically sent text messages to his family about end-of-life issue and to associates to tie up loose ends on his business. In the ICU, he was placed on a ventilator.

“For me, it’s a lesson in preparedness or a lack thereof. We can get hit by a bus on any given day,’’ he said. “It’s all just driven home to you when you have a couple of days to see the bus coming. That’s been a real lesson for me personally. Hopefully others are smarter than I when it comes to their preparation and planning.’’

memorial hospital north at sunrise where Keith, combat veteran, triumphed in battle with COVID-19
Memorial Hospital North in Colorado Springs where Keith, a combat veteran, triumphed in battle with COVID-19. Photo: UCHealth.

It’s amazing all the things that are going through your head when it looks like you are going to be out for a while and it’s entirely possible that you may be out forever.’’

One of the most difficult things about being a patient in any hospital now is strict visitor policies to safeguard against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Klaehn has not had a face-to-face visit with his wife in weeks, though members of Memorial’s chaplain team have used iPads, Zoom and FaceTime to provide video conferences.

“It’s certainly been one of the most difficult aspects of it,’’ Klaehn said. “The chaplain corps has done an amazing job for our family in terms of helping getting us connected through video message. Even the doctors, they have taken pictures when they have time and sent them to my wife, because she had just no frame of reference whatsoever, my sitting here, my condition, my appearance. The staff from top to bottom here has been amazing.’’

Klaehn, who travels frequently, said that now that he has COVID-19 in the rear view mirror, getting out to see his children and 9 grandchildren, will again be a priority for him and his wife. When safe-at-home orders lift and the United States opens up a little bit, Klaehn and his wife will resume traveling and get out to see their loved ones.

“All five of our children are grown. The youngest of our 5 kids is in college – and almost everyone is either serving in the military, or they have served and gone on to do something else,’’ he said. “They’re all over, in Atlanta, North Carolina and Whidbey Island, Washington and in Colorado Springs.’’

“We’re on the road a lot. We have the joke that I earn the miles and my wife uses them. Occasionally, I get to join her on the trips,’’ he joked.

He said that his memory of some of the early days in the hospital and certainly while on in the ICU are a blur to him.

“The staff are always asking me, do you remember this, do you remember that? And it’s been good for them to recount some of the stories to me because I do not, in fact, remember,’’ he said.

“I’m so grateful for them,’’ he said.

For as long as he lives, he said, one thing that will always stay with him is the eye-to-eye communication he had with his caregivers. He’s always been good with names and faces, but as a patient looking up from his bed, all he could see above his caregivers’ masks were their eyes.

Looking into them, he saw compassion and courage, the qualities he’s admired through battles fought with the best soldiers.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.