Former Viking Jared Allen pep talks Brainerd ICU patient to ‘sack COVID’
From his hospital bed, Mark Feierabend vowed to make lifestyle changes and influence others to become vaccinated for COVID-19.
BRAINERD — On his ninth day in the intensive care unit seriously ill with COVID-19, Mark Feierabend received a phone call he’ll never forget.
“I had the best moment of my life. Incredible. Incredible,” the 54-year-old Brainerd man said Friday, Jan. 21, hours after a virtual visit from former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. “ … He’s my sports hero. To have your sports hero reach out and FaceTime you, that is completely incredible. Best moment of my life, I can honestly say that.”
Allen relayed to a tearful Feierabend how he keeps himself motivated to accomplish goals, both in his experience as one of the Vikings’ all-time leading pass rushers and in his personal life.
“You have to reassess your life sometimes and reassess your behaviors and really determine what kind of person you want to be, what kind of lifestyle you want to live … and how you want to move forward and what is the foundation you stand on,” Allen said. “ … It’s the old adage, right? ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing all the way.’ … You be relentless. You keep fighting.”
It was an opportunity for inspiration Feierabend almost didn’t live to enjoy. After nearly two weeks home sick in bed, Feierabend felt his health continue to deteriorate. An early morning trip to the emergency department at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd revealed how dire his situation had become. A check showed his blood oxygen level at 45%, about half of the healthy range — so low, his skin appeared blue.
Dr. Jeremiah Eisenschenk, his doctor in the ICU, said Feierabend’s shortness of breath was extreme and he narrowly avoided intubation as part of his treatment for adult respiratory distress syndrome.
Feierabend’s case was yet another representing what’s become a familiar set of circumstances for those treating critically ill COVID-19 patients: a middle-aged obese person with metabolic illness — in Feierabend’s case, prediabetes — who chose not to get vaccinated. Feierabend was also a smoker for four decades of his life, another health-compromising factor playing into the detrimental effect the disease had on his body.
“It’s almost where I could have a template for my charting that says, ‘middle-aged, obese, prediabetic, unvaccinated, presents with shortness of breath, proceed to the ICU admission,’” Eisenschenk said.
It soon became clear to the ICU care team, however, that Feierabend’s response to his circumstances wasn’t quite as typical. A staunch COVID-19 skeptic, Feierabend said his brush with death not only prompted a 180-degree shift on his stance, but also inspired him to convince as many people in his life as possible to become vaccinated. One good friend who’d thus far resisted vaccination already went in to receive his first dose, according to Feierabend.
“I tell you, everybody I love today … I will beg and plead with them to get the shot,” Feierabend said. “I totally, completely, have changed my whole, whole outlook on the vaccine. I want everybody to get it. … I’ve got a family member right now, she’s so frustrated. Vaccinated, sick for the third time. But you know what? You’re at home, resting, getting better at home with your family. Where if you weren’t vaccinated, you’d be stuck here for 20 days by yourself like me.”
Feierabend said it was a mistake to trust “internet quacks or Facebook doctors” over the advice of his primary physician, whose guidance he trusts on every other aspect of his medical care. There was no specific reason for his vaccine suspicion or skepticism about the existence of COVID-19 in general, Feierabend said, but rather it was a general line of thought surrounding him in his social circles. So deeply held were his views just weeks ago, he said he didn’t even consider he might have the disease — which he wasn’t sure he believed existed in the first place — despite his desperately ill state.
I tell you, everybody I love today … I will beg and plead with them to get the shot.
“Let’s just start with Fox News, how’s that? I used to love that place. Now I think it’s a joke, you know what I mean?” he said. “For me, it is so heartbreaking that a pandemic that shut down the world and so many people have lost their lives has become so, so political. I think it’s disgusting. And I think it’s shameful.”
Feierabend said this experience opened his eyes in multiple ways. He plans to make lifestyle changes he’d never seriously considered before by quitting smoking for good, shifting to a healthy diet and incorporating exercise into his life. He attributes this renewed outlook on life to the thoughtful care he’s received while hospitalized, where he will likely remain for weeks ahead.
“This ICU team is the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. … I’ve never met any people like these people. They are truly — I get a little teared up thinking about it, because they saved my life. They are truly, truly amazing individuals,” Feierabend said. “ … I’ve had some pretty big transformation on how I feel about the vaccine, but it’s because of them that they took the time to sit with me. … They spent so much time with me, explaining things to me and making sure I understood and not listening to the bullshit out there. They’re incredible. Incredible. There’s no other word than ‘godsend.’”
For Eisenschenk, Feierabend’s determination to better himself is refreshing and offers inspiration at a time when embattled health care workers are under intense pressure.
They’re incredible. Incredible. There’s no other word than ‘godsend.’
“I think what stood out is Mark’s awareness of his health and behaviors and his lifestyle,” said Eisenschenk, who specializes both in hospitalist services as well as non-surgical weight loss. “ … And I think it’s his recognition of that and his courage to speak and share his story, and to do so at a super vulnerable time. … We all make a series of choices, and he’s suffered the consequences of misinformation and choosing a pathway that has led to an immense amount of suffering.”
It was Eisenschenk who arranged the surprise Vikings visit for Feierabend after learning of his fierce loyalty to the team, demonstrated by a tattoo on his forearm. Allen said Feierabend must be a pretty special patient because it isn’t often he receives requests like this.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” Allen said. “I appreciate you being a fan. I know you’ve got a bigger battle you’re fighting right now, man, but you’ve got our support. … I praise God that you’re going to get through this, and it seems like he has a bigger plan for you.”
While Allen was on the line, Eisenschenk interjected to point out the similarities between Feierabend’s fight and Allen’s battles on the field.
“Obviously the whole analogy is sacking the quarterback,” Eisenschenk said, “and Mark’s goal here is to sack COVID.”
“That’s a good way to put it,” Allen replied. “Sack COVID.”