John Bjorkman’s life revolved around children — his own children, his children’s children, and those he taught in South Dakota schools for more than three decades.
When he 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 told CNN. He made friends wherever he went.
Those friends, some of whom hadn’t seen John in years, overwhelmed him and his relatives with well wishes and stories of their friendship when John was hospitalized for coronavirus last month, they said. John became a local news fixture after he revealed that he was airlifted to Minnesota because South Dakota’s hospital capacity was shrinking.
With the virus, John, whose family repeatedly noted his “zest for life” and vibrant energy, became constantly exhausted and struggled to breathe. His family didn’t expect the virus would bring him down.
John Bjorkman, a beloved father, grandfather and lifelong educator in De Smet, South Dakota, passed away last week at age 66, more than one month after he tested positive for coronavirus, his wife and daughter confirmed to CNN. He’d spent most of the past month in and out of hospitals.
“Anybody that gets the strain that I have — you better be ready for the fight of your life,” he told CNN affiliate KSFY in late September. “It’s almost a death wish. I can see why there’s so many people that die from it.”
He broke news about his hospital’s capacity
When the pandemic began in March, John’s children assumed that their mother was the more likely of the couple to become severely ill if she contracted coronavirus. Chris Bjorkman, John’s wife, has 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 weather it safely.
But shortly after his diagnosis, he had trouble breathing and was admitted to the hospital. While hospitalized, his health went through cycles of improvement and decline.
“He fought so hard,” Mlcak said. “He really did. He would get a little bit better. We had some hope, and then he would just crash.”
In September, John told KSFY there were several days “fighting for every breath.” He said he didn’t know if he’d see the next day.
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, where his family said he received care from a disease specialist.
Before he was airlifted, John said he heard physicians saying their Sioux Falls hospital didn’t have the capacity to house more coronavirus patients — something that local officials hadn’t confirmed publicly at the time. (Capacity has increased since late September, so now 35.3% of regular hospital beds are available and 31.7% of ICU beds are available, according to the state’s health department.)
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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 need long-term care.
But John died shortly after entering swing bed care, his wife said.
“For this virus to take him down is still shocking,” Mlcak said. “I don’t think we’ve fully come to grips with it.”
He was a generous educator
Chris joked that John went to school as a kid and never left a classroom. He finally retired recently after a few false starts — he couldn’t seem to get away from school.
Mlcak is an assistant principal at a private middle school in Texas. She didn’t expect to go into education like her dad, but she finds herself drawn to the students in the same way he was — she’s energized by them.
“I am a bit like my dad in that way,” Mlack said.
Chris remembers her husband as a generous teacher who often exceeded his duties to provide for his students.
“He loved people,” she said. “He loved people a lot. He was the type of person if a kid needed a pair of glasses, he would take them and go buy them the glasses. He was constantly buying tennis shoes for kids in elementary — if they needed that, he made sure they had it.”
Mlcak remembers a time in high school when her father asked her to donate some of her clothes to one of his students.
“‘Look at all these clothes you have,'” Mlcak remembered her dad telling her. “He was teaching that, instilling that into us kids, as well — to share.”
Being in the hospital for so long kept John from his grandchildren for far longer than he would’ve liked. He’d take his grandchildren, three boys and one girl, on fishing and hunting trips; he’d take them boating and teach them to ski like he did with his own children. He visited his daughter in Texas and spent most of his time swimming and golfing with her children.
“He was just so nice,” she said. “And I think that brought out the sweetness in other people, as well.”
South Dakota Covid-19 cases have ballooned
Cases in South Dakota, which avoided major outbreaks throughout the spring and summer, have ballooned in the last month and a half. And earlier this week, the state recorded over 1,000 new cases in one day — the highest number of daily cases recorded in the state so far.
Over 38,500 people in the state have contracted Covid-19, and 375 of them have died, according to the state health department. John didn’t want to become part of a sobering statistic.
“He kept trying to rally,” Mlcak said. “He was determined to fight this.”
Mlcak said she doesn’t know if her father would still be alive if more people in his South Dakota community had taken coronavirus seriously. But she asks residents of the state and the US to stay home when they can, wear masks and maintain their distance from others — if not for her father, then to prevent another family from enduring a similar tragedy.