Rob Tersteeg figured at some point, he'd probably get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Yet, busy with his job and family this spring, the 46-year-old oil field safety worker just didn't get around to it. Relatively young, active and healthy, Tersteeg didn't consider COVID-19 an immediate threat, especially after evading illness for more than a year. As an essential worker who had regularly traveled despite steep virus peaks in his home state of North Dakota and across the country, Tersteeg felt safe.
But as he sat in the emergency room of a Minot, N.D., hospital in May, struggling to breathe, Tersteeg told his wife, Amy, of his vaccine regrets. A few weeks later, he died in a hospital in Minneapolis, where a COVID treatment of last resort wasn't enough to save him.
"Rob's final wish was that his journey with COVID might save even just one more loving husband, son, father, uncle, friend," his family wrote in his obituary. "Rob regretted not being vaccinated and, immediately upon hospitalization, made Amy promise to vaccinate the kids."
Nearly everyone hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks and months has had the chance to get vaccinated, likely preventing their illness or at least sparing them from the worst of the disease, doctors say.
Some patients and families remain decidedly opposed to immunizations, health officials say, even after confronting the idea that the vaccine likely would have spared them. But others, including patients who were on the fence about being immunized, are admitting to feelings of regret and remorse.
"I think it's easy for us looking from the outside, or for even people in health care, to think that everybody getting COVID right now is a vehement vaccine opponent," said Dr. Andrew Olson, the director of COVID medicine at M Health Fairview. "That's not the case.
"Instead, we're seeing people who just were busy and were not prioritizing it — and said 'I'll get it done when I get it done,' and 'I don't want to miss a day of work.' "
They're missing the vaccine "for the same reason that we don't go to the dentist, or we don't get our eyes checked," Olson said. "We just have to make it a priority."
When Rob Tersteeg was hospitalized, he talked with his doctor about sharing his COVID story once he recovered, so others might better understand the consequences of illness as they considered whether to get vaccinated. The couple didn't want to be pushy with their message, Amy Tersteeg said, believing the ultimate decision on immunizations should always remain with individuals.
"We don't want to tell people to get the vaccine — we want people to read what COVID does and to decide for themselves," she said. "Rob was invincible until he wasn't."
Young and active
Rob Tersteeg grew up on a farm near Bird Island, Minn., about 90 miles west of the Twin Cities.
In his 20s, he worked as a trucker based in his home state, but later moved to North Dakota to work as a safety officer with energy companies in the Bakken oil fields. That's where he met Amy, who moved from Minnesota for a job with Trinity Health, which operates a hospital and clinic in Minot.
It was a second marriage for both when they wed in 2014. Amy had three children and the family quickly jelled, with Rob aspiring to perfect attendance at the kids' sporting events and school fundraisers.
With Rob at the helm, pontoon boat rides became the family's pastime — often with kids being pulled in a tube behind. A few times a week, the couple could be found playing in cornhole tournaments or bowling in leagues around town.
When COVID-19 hit North Dakota in early 2020, Amy became part of the emergency response team at Trinity. This past winter, she was an active part of the vaccination effort and was promptly immunized herself.
Rob never downplayed the significance of her stories, Amy said, as she described the pandemic suffering she witnessed or the joy for patients at being newly vaccinated.
But he didn't want to be sidelined by the short-term side-effects — chills, aches and fatigue — that Amy experienced after her vaccination. And he tended to think COVID-19, while a serious issue for nursing home residents, the elderly and those with significant health problems, just wasn't reason for concern in his world.
"There was never a conversation like: 'Hell, no. I'm not going to get it,' " Amy said. "There was a feeling of: 'I don't need it. It's not going to take me down. I'm not old. I'm not sick.' "
Sharing his story
The couple never argued over vaccination. As conservative Christians, they both believed that vaccine decisions shouldn't be forced on people, Amy said, just like faith can't be forced on those who don't believe.
"I never pushed him," she said. "I didn't push our friends. I just didn't believe in that."
That day in the ER, though, Rob's regret drove him to insist that his stepchildren get vaccinated as soon as possible. After a few days in the hospital, he talked with Dr. Casmiar Nwaigwe, an infectious disease physician at Trinity, about the idea of sharing his story to warn others.
Letting Rob describe what they thought would be a near-miss with COVID would be helpful, Nwaigwe believed, because vaccination rates in the Minot area are significantly lower than in Minnesota and many parts of the country. Whereas 70% of Minnesota adults had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Thursday, the North Dakota rate was just under 56%.
"At the point I had that discussion with him," Nwaigwe said, "I thought he was going to turn around."
Rob wasn't being treated for health problems like asthma, diabetes or lung disease that put people at greater risk for bad cases of COVID-19. People who are overweight run greater COVID-19 risks, and that description applied to Rob, who stood 6 feet tall and weighed about 210 pounds.
But he looked like an average guy in his age group, Nwaigwe said, an active man who wasn't likely to become a pandemic casualty.
"The message I think people should take from his story is that COVID is a serious disease whether you're young or whether you're old," Nwaigwe said. "The best treatment is not to get it, because it's unpredictable."
During Rob's funeral last month in Bird Island, one of the petitions — the portion of the Catholic mass where congregants seek help from God — asked: "For all those considering their own individual decisions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, may their hearts be softened by Rob's willingness to share his very personal battle with COVID."
Family members believe the message is making a difference as it circulates among those who knew Rob.
"We literally have gotten texts and folks have called us to say: 'I wasn't going to get vaccinated' or 'I was on the fence, but now I've changed my mind,' " said Gina Fox, a sister. "I know my brother would say: 'It's a very personal decision, but look what happened to me.' "
For Amy Tersteeg, the hope that Rob's story might help protect others is a source of comfort amid her loss.
"I can remember Rob saying: 'Yeah, someday — I'll probably get the vaccine someday,' " she said. "But there was never a thought in his mind that that someday had already passed until he was in the ER, not able to breathe on his own."
Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744