FARGO — The first person who died in North Dakota from coronavirus was a Navy veteran and educator who declined to be put on a ventilator, possibly to save it for another patient, his niece said Saturday, March 28.
Roger Lehne, 93, died Thursday, March 26, at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Fargo due to complications from the illness, according to a death notice published Saturday. Anderson Family Funeral Home in Mahnomen, Minn., is handling the arrangements for funeral services, which are expected to be held at a later date.
The North Dakota Department of Health announced Saturday there are 94 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state. Lehne is the only person who has died in North Dakota after contracting the illness.
His niece, Julie LaVoy, said her uncle refused to be put on a ventilator, making his family wonder if he wanted to save it for someone else who might need it.
“He showed us all how to live, and he absolutely showed us dignity at death, too,” she said, adding Lehne was in charge of his own life and wasn’t afraid to die.
Lehne’s 84-year-old wife, Teresa, has been hospitalized at Sanford Health with coronavirus, LaVoy said. Teresa Lehne and other family members were not allowed to be at Roger Lehne’s side when he died, LaVoy said.
“I had to Facetime with her (Teresa Lehne) and tell her that her beloved husband of 60-plus years had passed away,” LaVoy said. “You hear about coronavirus out there, and you feel bad for everybody. But I had not even considered how families were going to be separated and left alone, not being able to be with their loved ones at the end of life. It’s heartbreaking.”
Roger Lehne was not alone. Hospice nurses were with him and kept family informed until the end, LaVoy said.
“He left a beautiful message for his wife,” she said. “He said how very, very much he loved her and that he’s going to miss her."
‘He was a jokester’
Born March 26, 1927, Roger Lehne grew up in Audubon, Minn. He enlisted in the Navy at age 17 toward the end of World War II. Though he wasn’t deployed, he still served as a medic, LaVoy said.
“One of his stories was, he used to tease that he would tape (his patients’) ears down to keep them from moving,” she said. “He was a jokester.”
He attended what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead and earned his master’s degree at the University of North Dakota. He became a teacher in 1954, teaching in Waubun, Minn., before taking a teaching position in Mahnomen. He went on to become vice principal at Mahnomen High School.
“He was very firm,” LaVoy said, recalling how he would sit at a table during lunch and make sure students behaved. “He always had a toothpick hanging out of his mouth. He was world-famous for his toothpick.”
Lehne was 6 feet 2 inches tall, lean and had a presence about him that was amazing, LaVoy said. Despite being firm, he was everyone’s friend and everyone respected him, she added.
“They could joke with him a little bit, but they knew they couldn’t go too far,” she said.
In 1958, he married Teresa, an elementary school teacher in Mahnomen. They would stay there until moving to Fargo’s Riverview Place, a Catholic Health Initiatives retirement community.
Taking the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with other veterans was "one of the highlights of his life," LaVoy said.
‘Above and beyond’
The state health department announced North Dakota’s first coronavirus death Friday, March 27. It did not name Roger Lehne, citing federal laws preventing the release of patient information. The agency noted he was from Cass County and had underlying health conditions.
LaVoy said her uncle didn’t have any underlying health issues other than his age. His voice and mind were clear, just like when he was a teacher and vice principal, she said.
“Roger was in fabulous health,” she said. “He was healthy as can be.”
The health department also said he contracted the disease through community spread, meaning the source of the virus that made him ill is unknown. His description matches that of a man identified as having a positive test of coronavirus in the March 24 batch.
The Fargo VA, which confirmed the death was at its hospital but also didn’t identify Lehne, implemented restrictions on March 18 that prohibited visitors from seeing inpatient veterans.
“The only exceptions will be in compassionate cases, when veterans are in their last stages of life on hospice units,” the policy says, though some exceptions could be made on a case-by-case base for patients in critical care.
A visitor or companion is allowed in facilities for veterans who require assistance for outpatient visits, but that is limited to one per veteran, the hospital said. Those going in and out of the facility also are being screened.
“We are very sensitive to the separation this restriction causes our patients and their loved ones, but this measure of protection is essential at this time to keep people safe,” the VA said in a Facebook post.
A VA person declined to say whether Lehne’s family was denied the opportunity to be with him before he died, citing federal privacy laws regarding medical records.
Riverview Place also declined to comment for this story, deferring questions to the state department.
People may not realize the separation the coronavirus has caused, LaVoy said. She never imagined she would not be able to hug and comfort her aunt in person if Roger Lehne died, or that the couple couldn’t say their final goodbyes to each other.
Teresa Lehne has a fever, but she's not on oxygen yet, LaVoy said.
Medical staff at the VA and Sanford have done their best to help the Lehnes and their family, she added.
“We should appreciate the medical staff,” LaVoy said. “They are going above and beyond. … We need to thank them so much.”
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