Lexie Goertzen ’10: The Story of a COVID-19 Survivor

June 30, 2020

Lexie Goertzen ’10 survived COVID-19 and is putting her experience into practice as a pediatric clinical research coordinator for critical care at a Minneapolis hospital.

253X380 Alumna Lexie Goertzen in the lab.Lexie Goertzen '10 majored in vocal performance at Wheaton and began a career in opera until God called her to help others as a pediatric clinical research coordinator for critical care. While she never would have predicted this life for herself—she doesn’t like blood and wanted to stay in Chicago after graduation from college—she now finds herself working with blood on a regular basis in Minnesota.

"I never in a million years thought I’d do research, but it’s what God has for this point in my life," Goertzen said. "I love to connect with families, tell them what I'm passionate about, and make a positive impact on the lives of children. There are so many things about my job that I didn’t expect, yet this is exactly who God made me to be."

Goertzen said her Wheaton experience prepared her to think about and engage with the world and to ask difficult questions that help her live out her faith in a scientific career.

"The Conservatory of Music at Wheaton taught me integrity, creativity, perseverance, grace, humility, improvisation, and a pursuit of excellence," Goertzen said. "Those were intrinsic values in so many of my classes that went beyond the music page and beyond the stage."

Day in and day out, she organizes and runs research studies for children in critical care and cardiovascular intensive care units at a hospital in Minneapolis.

In March 2020, Goertzen's life turned upside down. She attended a conference in New Orleans and contracted coronavirus. After a week of going back to work in Minneapolis, she came down with symptoms and knew she needed to check into the hospital.

"Unimaginable, excruciating pain caused me to wake up screaming, unable to move from the most severe body aches, feeling like an ice pick was being driven into my ankles and back, trying to gasp for air, only to continually cough, gag, and vomit—at home alone and fending for myself," Goertzen said. "The fevers, chills, loss of taste and smell, debilitating headaches from coughing so hard that caused me to throw out my neck—and these were only some of things I experienced before even making it to the hospital where I continued to rapidly decline."

253x380 Alumna Lexie Goertzen in the hospital.Goertzen was one of Minnesota’s first COVID-19 patients and was treated in one of Minnesota's first all-COVID hospitals. She was admitted to the ICU for a few days during her stay, but was miraculously able to avoid being intubated in a ventilator and didn’t need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment, either.

"It could have been so much worse, but I made it out alive. Thanks be to God," Goertzen said. "Now, in between nightmares, cold sweats, and frequent flashbacks, I wonder each night why I was so blessed, so fortunate, so supported, in word and deed, by an army of people, some of whom I’ve never even met."

Looking back now and seeing the catastrophic impacts COVID-19 has had on people worldwide, Goertzen is grateful for God’s protection over her coworkers and patients. 

"It is a total miracle, but nobody I was in contact with contracted COVID-19," Goertzen said. "Doctors say, 'How no one got it is beyond us.' As I was sick in the hospital, I kept praying, 'Lord, let this not happen to anyone else.' God protected everyone."

Lexie is passionate about making sure everyone is aware of how serious coronavirus is, and how important it is to protect each other by staying home, washing hands, wearing masks, and maintaining social distance guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I know what it's like to be critically ill--it has taken me months to recover,” Lexie said. “If you get COVID, depending on the severity, it can knock you out for months. Stay safe, have courage, be kind, and let my experience be a cautionary tale: Don’t let this be you or someone you love. The devastation and pain are more than you can imagine and the ramifications could last a lifetime.” 

Goertzen also carries a sense of survivor's guilt--something she funnels into dedication to her work.

"The irony is that now, as I regain my strength, it is to 'return to the battlefield' to continue research on COVID-19," Goertzen said. "It took me a few weeks to regain my strength and then another couple weeks to get oriented to what was happening in the units at my hospital. As soon as I got my footing, we experienced the devastating death of George Floyd three miles from where I work. It’s a new, unprecedented time in so many different ways."

Returning to work was challenging for Goertzen. She remembers her hands shaking as she processed her first COVID samples at the hospital.

"I didn’t know if they were shaking because I was scared, or if I was angry. I just remember thinking, 'I’m holding the beast in my hands. This thing crippled my life for a moment in time.' I also remember thinking, 'We’re going to overcome this.' I felt so hopeful in that moment, and yet cautiously optimistic."

At her workplace now, Goertzen said there is a "choreography of communication and cooperation" that allows her to work with nurses, doctors, and nurse techs effectively to get samples from patients that will help figure out how COVID-19 progresses in children and how children’s immune systems respond to treatments.

"If you do get COVID-19 as a teenager or a child, I'm there to collect data to figure out how to better combat COVID-19 to come up with solutions for the future," Goertzen said.

Goertzen spends a lot of her time recruiting families and children to participate in research studies, and found that surviving COVID-19 enabled her to exhibit a unique sort of empathy for families of children who have COVID-19. 

"I don’t have a child that I emotionally, physically, know that moment of critical care where your head is spinning and you don't want one more thing to think about, but my job is to be there and ask for one more thing--in a sensitive, compassionate, empathetic, and unique way," Goertzen said. "It’s a gift God has given me in so many ways."

Goertzen said that, as a former COVID patient and now as a staff member, she can apply her experience as a patient to enhance hospital workflows and processes--something her family, friends, and colleagues have pointed out regularly.

"My mom says, 'God called you for such a time as this.' I say, 'Thanks, Mom.' Even my coworkers say, 'God put you in the right place at the right time, so we’re sorry it had to be you, but it was you,'" Goertzen said.

Goertzen noted her classmates from the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music have become like family over the years, lifting her up in prayer and encouragement, and standing by her through the hills and valleys she’s traveled in the past decade. Fittingly, Goertzen pointed out that the Class of 2010 T-shirt says, in all capital letters: WE SURVIVED THE PLAGUE.

"My Wheaton Conservatory friends are who I call when times get tough," Goertzen said. "In 2010, we dealt with swine flu, earthquakes, floods, and mumps. Now, in 2020, we have murder hornets, wildfires, and a global pandemic. We are still the Class of 2010, and we are still resilient. We can adapt and prepare mostly because of a faith that is never ceasing."

She also noted that Psalm 16 has been especially instrumental in her recovery, as Wheaton’s Concert Choir, an ensemble she was part of during her Wheaton years, sang the text set to music in a memorable Daniel Kellogg arrangement during her senior year.

"This piece has gone with all of us who sang it since then," Goertzen said. "One of my peers listened to it during her excruciating labor, another as a loved one passed away, and I listened seven years ago when my brother went into critical care and almost died. I listened again when I was in critical care this year. I could hear the voices, and almost smell the smells of Pierce Chapel and Edman. Everything came back."

Months after contracting the virus, Goertzen is still not back to 100%, but is able to share hope with colleagues and patients going through the virus themselves.

"We have to be prepared and we have to be ready to love unconditionally and support one another," Goertzen said. "In my case, it’s to be ready to collect all the data we possibly can so we can get to the bottom of it. That’s the goal. To put COVID in its place."-- Allison Althoff Steinke ’11