John Bjorkman, a beloved father, grandfather, and lifelong educator in De Smet, South Dakota, passed away last week at 66 years old, more than one month after he tested positive for coronavirus.
His life revolved around children. His own children, his children’s children, and those he taught in South Dakota schools for more than thirty years.
When John wasn’t in a classroom, first as a teacher and later a principal and a superintendent, he’d lug his own children around the state while he refereed girls’ and boys’ basketball games, his family said in a CNN report. John made friends wherever he went.
John’s friends overwhelmed him and his relatives with well wishes and stories of their friendship when John was hospitalized for coronavirus last month. He became a local news fixture after he revealed that he was airlifted to Minnesota because South Dakota’s hospital capacity was shrinking.
With the coronavirus, John, whose family repeatedly said his “zest for life” and vibrant energy, became exhausted and constantly struggled to breathe. John’s family didn’t expect the virus would bring him down.
“Anybody that gets the strain that I have, you better be ready for the fight of your life,” John said in a KSFY report in late September. “It’s almost a death wish. I can see why there’s so many people that die from it.”
When the pandemic began in March, John’s children thought that their mother was the more likely of the couple to become sick if she contracted coronavirus.
Chris Bjorkman, John’s wife, has the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which obstructs airflow to the lungs, while John didn’t have any underlying conditions that his family knew about.
“We were not at all worried about my dad,” said Kassi Mlcak, John and Chris’ daughter and youngest child. “He was so active.”
Even after John was diagnosed with Covid-19, his family assumed he’d recovered safely. However, shortly after his diagnosis, John had trouble breathing and was admitted to the hospital. While hospitalized, his health went through cycles of improvement and decline.
John unintentionally made the news for his Covid-19 diagnosis when he was airlifted from a hospital in Sioux Falls to a facility in Minnesota.
Before John was airlifted, he said he heard physicians saying their Sioux Falls hospital didn’t have the capacity to admit more coronavirus patients, something that local officials hadn’t confirmed publicly at the time.
(According to the state’s health department, capacity has increased since late September, so now 35.3% of regular hospital beds are available and 31. 7% of ICU beds are available. )
John eventually returned to South Dakota to receive care from a local swing bed program, a form of care some rural hospitals offer to patients in recovery when they no longer needed long-term care. Unfortunately, John died shortly after entering swing bed care, his wife said.