MURRAY — In a lot of ways, Benjamin Jenson is just like any first-time father, navigating sleepless nights, learning to change diapers with efficiency, and figuring out what soothes his beautiful baby girl.
But it is difficult to lose himself in the magic of these moments because his vibrant, excited-to-be-a-mom wife Jessi is on a ventilator in a Murray hospital fighting to recover from the virus that has upended almost everything about their lives just a week ago.
“She’s very strong-willed,” Jenson said of his wife of almost two years, who was flown to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray from a Boise hospital about 1 a.m. Wednesday, less than 24 hours after being admitted with breathing trouble.
“She is a very, very strong person, and she’s constantly thinking about what she’s going to do next. She loves to write, and dream of what’s coming next; she would love to travel. She is the colorful, rainbow sparkle to my day-to-day drabness. She’s much better at doing the dreaming.”
Jessi Jenson, 24, was diagnosed with COVID-19 a few days after her husband contracted it about four or five days earlier.
“When I first got sick, I was at work,” said Jenson, who works in the shipping industry. “I thought that I was just really tired from the day before. It had been a long, tough shift.”
Like a lot of Americans, Jenson has had to change jobs more than once, but in August, the native Utahn landed this job with a small independent shipping company in Boise.
“I started feeling symptoms on Thursday (Oct. 22), but I didn’t realize it until later Thursday night,” he said. “I called out Friday morning. I was absolutely exhausted. I had pretty bad body aches and a sinus headache. It was bad enough that I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to move.”
The next day, he was able to get tested for COVID-19. Later that night, he was notified that he’d tested positive. Jessi Jenson began showing symptoms the next morning.
“She got tested on Monday or Tuesday and got the results the same day,” he said. “She was really, really tired. It knocked her on her butt. She didn’t have the energy to move around either.”
The two were annoyed by coughs, and Jessi Jenson worried that her plans to give birth at a birthing center would not be allowed.
“Her main concern, and it was pretty important to her, was having labor and delivery in a peaceful environment,” she said. “We were planning to go to a birthing center in the area so that if anything went wrong, we could be transferred to a hospital. But we wanted a quiet, calm environment where she could give birth.”
Unfortunately, her fears were realized when the birthing center told the couple that because they had COVID-19, they could not give birth in the center.
Jenson was due on Nov. 2, but about 9 p.m. on Oct. 28, she went into labor. The hospital wouldn’t allow her husband to accompany her because he was still supposed to be quarantined. Jessi Jenson’s mom had traveled to Boise from Utah, and she went to the hospital with her daughter.
“She wasn’t allowed to leave the room where Jessi was in labor,” he said. “Jessi was in labor for 15 hours before she asked for an epidural. Then, at about 36 hours, she opted for a C-section.”
Jenson received text updates from his mother-in-law and sometimes his wife called him when she was feeling well enough. He sat in his Boise home, alone, praying his wife and daughter would be OK.
“It was stressful,” he said softly. “I knew she was taken care of, and that she had people there — nurses, her mom. But I was frustrated and upset that I wasn’t going to be able to be there for the birth of my daughter. ... The nurses all took good care of her, but it was very stressful and anxiety-inducing not to be able to be there.”
Jenson heard Gwendolyn’s first cry on a video call on Oct. 30. He was grateful they found a way for him to see those first few moments of his daughter’s life for himself.
“Being able to see my daughter was something special, but seeing my wife’s reaction when I first heard her cry, that was a very sweet moment for me.”
Jessi Jenson and baby Gwendolyn were released from the hospital on Sunday, Nov. 1, and Benjamin Jenson was there to take them home.
They felt like typical parents of a new baby that day, choosing her name, putting the crib together, and just marveling over those first moments of life as a family of three.
“It didn’t really sink in right away,” he said. “I’ve always wanted kids, but it didn’t really sink in until I’d had her home for a couple of days. ... I didn’t get to sleep much, and I thought, ‘I’m a dad now.’”
But their joy was marred by Jessi Jenson’s struggle to recover from COVID-19.
“Monday she started to take a downturn,” he said. “She wasn’t able to sleep, and I think that contributed to her symptoms worsening. Monday night to Tuesday morning was the most rough.”
Tuesday morning, instead of celebrating Benjamin’s 25th birthday, he dropped his wife off at the doors of a hospital that he couldn’t enter.
“Her oxygen was at 25%,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed in the ER.”
They put her on a ventilator right away, but after a few hours, they called him to tell him it wasn’t doing the work Jessi’s body needed it to do.
Doctors told him she needed a procedure called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — ECMO — a treatment that uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung back into the body.
“They said it was like dialysis for your lungs,” he said.
The hospital in Boise didn’t have one, but hospitals in neighboring states like Washington, Oregon and Utah did. He chose Utah because he has family here, and he knew he could stay with them while Jessi was hospitalized. They flew her to Utah around 1 a.m. Wednesday, and it was then that Benjamin Jenson began to grasp the gravity of the situation.
“The doctors were explaining what the ECMO machine did ... and he said that when people with COVID go on machines, they can go on for a week or a month, they just don’t know. It was at that point that I was legitimately concerned that I might be a single father.”
Jessi Jenson doesn’t have the underlying health problems that often cause COVID-19 complications. She seems to be doing well, although her blood pressure was causing concerns on Thursday.
Jenson now spends his days caring for Gwendolyn at his parents’ house in Ogden, while his wife fights for her life in a hospital in Murray. He’s kept himself focused on his newborn daughter and his wife, but his family has rallied around them in many ways.
One uncle started a GoFundMe page for the family because they are without health insurance, and Benjamin Jenson has been told the costs of these life-saving treatments could exceed $96,000.
“I’m just trying to get on different financial assistance programs,” he said.
In between the joy and awe of fatherhood, he wrestles with anxiety and fear. He feels some sadness that his wife isn’t by his side nursing the baby she was so eager to bring into their lives.
“She was very excited,” he said. “She was a planner. She wanted to make sure everything was ready. ... She was so excited to be a mother and meet our daughter.”
As cases continue to skyrocket, Jenson wants to caution others.
“Whether or not you believe that masks work, whether or not you believe we even have a pandemic at the moment, please just respect other people — respect their freedom to not get sick,” he said.
“Being young is not a magic bullet to keep you safe,” Jenson added. “Keep in mind that if your friends are not at risk, they may come into contact with people who are. Just try to stay safe, people. Exercise caution and be wise.”
Contributing: Andrew Adams