MINNEAPOLIS – The neon poster in Kelly Meeker’s hospital room brightened the dark times.
It helped doctors and nurses fill in the blanks while she struggled on a ventilator, unable to speak.
She loves coaching gymnastics, the poster read. She used to live in Florida and enjoys the beach. She loves her family and her cats. She has a unique laugh.
“It was touch and go for a while,” Meeker told NBC News from her hospital bed with a haunting, raspy voice.
Meeker, who has only been off a ventilator for several days, doesn’t know how she contracted the coronavirus. She went to a family wedding, but she was the only one who ended up sick. She wonders if she got it at the grocery store. Her underlying condition? Asthma.
Her symptoms included a severe fever, a sore throat and chills.
“I was just feeling miserable,” Meeker said from her hospital bed. “I knew something was wrong. I knew I had Covid from the very first day that I had symptoms, but I just kept getting worse and worse and feeling sicker and sicker.”
She’s now out of isolation. She has weeks — if not months — of rehab ahead of her.
“I’ve never been more grateful to be alive,” Meeker, 36, said.
Her mother, Brenda Fick, was by her bedside. But during the height of her daughter’s sickness, she wasn’t allowed to be there because of visitor restrictions. She couldn’t hold her daughter’s hand.
“You really can’t describe it,” she said. “You want to be there. That’s your job. But you can’t. So you’re just helpless.”
On Wednesday, Minnesota reported its highest number of Covid-19 deaths in one day: 56. New cases in the state have spiked by about 135 percent in just the last two weeks. Minnesota also set its daily record on Thursday with 7,228 news cases reported.
Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis granted NBC News rare access inside its Covid-19 intensive care unit to show the pandemic’s devastating impact. About three-fourths of its 30 Covid ICU beds are full. As winter and flu season approaches, there are concerns about not just bed space, but staffing. Across the Midwest, more health care workers are getting sick — not at work, but through community spread. Others are having to quarantine themselves if relatives fall ill.
“I think it’s only going to get worse,” Dr. Clara Zamorano said. “Everyone’s affected from all sides.”
Registered nurse Katie O’Neil said she never expected to be this busy.
“When I think of the rise I just, I see my patients’ faces,” she said. “I don’t really think of numbers. I just think of my patients.”
For Meeker, each day brings small victories. On Wednesday, she took her first steps since emerging from her coma.
She had a message for those who were still skeptical of the virus’ seriousness.
“Wear your mask because I almost died from it,” Meeker said. “It’s more serious than people think.”
Gabe Gutierrez is an NBC News Correspondent based in New York. He reports for all platforms of NBC News, including “TODAY,” “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC and NBCNews.com.