Minnesota friends, ages 20 and 101, bonded by COVID-19

With help from her friend, Esther Olson, 101, is able to live at home after a battle with the coronavirus.

Silver Bay residents Esther Olson, 101, and Gavin LeBlanc, 20, share a bond of friendship that helped Olson through her recent stint with COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Gavin LeBlanc)
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SILVER BAY, Minn. — A few Sundays ago, Gavin LeBlanc, 20, noticed his friend, Esther Olson, 101, seemed a little weaker than usual.

LeBlanc visits Olson in Silver Bay, Minn., fairly often to check in and spend time talking, drinking coffee and playing cards. It wasn't anything specific that stood out to him that Sunday, just that she seemed not quite herself.

"I didn't think anything of it. Looking back now, I should have," LeBlanc said. "Later that evening, I was uptown playing cards with friends and got a call from her granddaughter. She couldn't get ahold of (Esther) and asked if I could run down and check on her."

He found Olson laying down on the floor where she'd been for six hours.

"The first thing she asked me was: 'Have I had supper yet?' I said: 'Don't worry about that; let's see what you're doing here,'" LeBlanc said. "I picked her up and the rescue squad came to check her out."


LeBlanc stayed the night to keep an eye on her, but Olson kept saying she didn't feel sick. Later that afternoon, she had lain down for a nap and couldn't get herself up off the couch.

LeBlanc drove her to urgent care at Lake View Memorial Hospital in Two Harbors, Minn., where Olson tested positive for COVID-19.

"She went a day in the hospital without any oxygen or anything," LeBlanc said. "Then she had to be on oxygen for the next five or six days, but she kept saying she didn't feel too bad. After rehab, she was able to come home."

Olson said that the illness was "a simple one" and that she didn't feel much of anything, other than having to take "lots of pills." But she's never seen anything like this pandemic before. LeBlanc credits the doctors and nurses at Lake View for her recovery. She's especially thankful for LeBlanc's help during this time.

A 10-year friendship

Olson and LeBlanc met about 10 years ago. LeBlanc's brothers used to mow her grass and he'd tag along.

"I was knee-high to a grasshopper in those days. I asked if I could come over and visit sometime and she said 'yes,'" LeBlanc said. "I went over that afternoon, and lo and behold, we've become friends ever since."

LeBlanc grew up close with his grandfather and said he's "always chummed around with older people." He's well-known at the area elder care homes as well.

With both of her children and husband gone, Olson relies on grandchildren and friends in the community for companionship. A Silver Bay restaurant, Northwoods Family Grill, has stepped up to provide her with dinner every Wednesday night while she's recovering.


"They just fell in love with her and wanted to help out," LeBlanc said.

Olson and LeBlanc have a special bond, according to both.

"He's like my son," Olson said of LeBlanc.

LeBlanc is happy to help his friend. This isn't the first time he's helped out when she's dealt with medical issues. Earlier in 2020, Olson fell and broke her hip. LeBlanc was the one who found her on the floor then as well.

"It's been quite a year for her," LeBlanc said. "We went through rehab and everything back then, but she was able to recover and go back home again."

Both Olson and LeBlanc are anxious for the pandemic to end so that they can get back to doing things they love, like dancing.

"She's a real trooper," LeBlanc said. "Just yesterday she stripped her bedding and washed it herself. She's pretty much back to her normal, spitfire self."

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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