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COVID the Destroyer

At 88, Dr. Dale Barker has seen many things. From bringing babies into the world as an obstetrician to caring for those soon to depart from the world as the medical director of the Oceana County Medical Care Facility, the longtime Hart resident has been blessed — and sometimes cursed — with that unique perspective on life and death that is granted to those in the medical profession.

That perspective has undoubtedly helped Dr. Barker to cope with the greatest loss of his life — his wife’s recent death from the virus that has become humanity’s most wily and virulent enemy, COVID-19.

One morning in November 2020, Pauline Barker woke up feeling ill.

“She had terrible diarrhea,” Barker recalls. “I knew that diarrhea was one of the symptoms of COVID, but Pauline had always had a sensitive digestive system and certain foods would often trigger diarrhea. And she had no other symptoms. No shortness of breath, high fever, anything like that. However, when the diarrhea went on for five or six days, she became so weak and dehydrated that I took her to Lakeshore Hospital in Shelby.”

At Lakeshore, Pauline was put on an IV. To Dale’s surprise, she was not given a COVID test. He insisted that she get one. When the results came back, he heard the words all of us have come to fear. His wife had tested positive.

Because she was not experiencing respiratory distress, Pauline was released. But a few days later, she took a turn for the worse.

“She complained of shortness of breath,” Barker recalls. “I got my oximeter and her blood oxygen was 65.”

A normal blood oxygen level is between 95 and 100. Barker took immediate action.

“I rushed to Mercy Hospital in Muskegon. But the COVID unit was full. She had to wait on the first floor for several hours. Meanwhile, they gave her oxygen, but it wasn’t helping. They then put her on a CPAP, and she seemed to stabilize, so they sent me home.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the phone rang.

“They called and said she was getting worse. I drove back to the hospital, and they had put in a tracheal tube and were giving her full oxygen.”

Barker pauses. “She refused intubation. It was something we’d often discussed, end of life issues. After all, we were in our 80s. We agreed that if one of us was in the hospital and needed critical care, we would refuse. So we both had DNRs.” His voice grows softer. “She lasted maybe another four or five hours. And then…she left.”

In an instant, Dale had to face a new reality — life without his partner of 65 years. How has he been adjusting to the devastating blow dealt by COVID the Destroyer?

“Slowly,” he answers, head bowed. Then, silence.

A tall, gracious man who’s remarkably fit for 88, Barker is sitting at the dining room table in his Hart home, looking over some old photos of him and Pauline. The premises are both spacious and cozy — a reflection, perhaps, of Pauline herself. She was a warm and expansive person. And at the same time, she could be as tough as a drill sergeant.

“I’m not used to not being bawled out yet!” Barker chuckles.

He smiles in reflection. “Pauline was very forthright. She wouldn’t tell a lie. If she didn’t like somebody, she’d let them know. And by the same token, if she liked you, you were good to go.”

That blunt honesty was one of the things that drew Barker to the tall, attractive young co-ed at the University of Michigan. Another was her intelligence. Barker was a pre-med student and Pauline Anne Marx was getting her degree in medical technology, an ambitious choice for a woman way back in the gender restrictive 1950s. She was also the school spelling champion. They began dating and married two years later, in 1955. After Barker got his medical degree, they moved to Hart.

“I’d always wanted to go into family practice,” he explains. “And I’d always wanted to be in a small town. So this was the place for me.”

The Barkers had a unique marriage. They were in some respects opposites — for instance, Dale was a lifelong hunter and Pauline wanted nothing to do with the sport — or his beloved hunting companion, a Brittany Spaniel.

“He was a wonderful dog,” Barker recalls. “But Pauline wouldn’t allow him in the house. She kept everything immaculate and didn’t want a dog shedding everywhere. I had to comply, because early on we had an agreement: she was in charge of the house and the checkbook, and I was in charge of everything else!”

At the same time, they loved square dancing and cycling — the latter an activity that would become their joint passion. They took up the sport in their 40s and biked all around Michigan. Even a cycling accident in 1983, in which Pauline suffered, among other injuries, a severely shattered pelvis, didn’t deter them from pursuing what would seem, to the average person, a preposterous challenge: biking across the U.S. when they were in their 60s.

“When I turned 62 and retired, we decided we’d bike the U.S.,” says Dale. “We logged 5,000 miles in 12 weeks. We slept in a tent in little towns along the way. The Rotary Club and the church ladies would give us breakfast and supper. We consumed around 5,000 calories a day and by the end of the trip we’d each lost 10 pounds!”

Barker estimates that over the years the couple biked over 200,000 miles — not only in Michigan and the U.S. — “We biked every state in the country, including Alaska and Hawaii,” Dale proudly notes — but also in Europe, Canada, Mexico, England and New Zealand. Meanwhile, in addition to being a homemaker and mother to their three children, David, Douglas and Janet, Pauline led an active civic life. She volunteered in the lab at Hart Hospital for many years, and served on the Hart City Council.

But with age came health problems. Pauline developed heart issues, and, years after her accident, back pain became a constant aspect of life. Dale suspects that COVID was simply too much for her.

“I think she was ready to go,” he reflects. “She’d been in a lot of pain. If she’d wanted to live, she wouldn’t have refused to be intubated.”

How does he think she contracted the virus?

“I don’t know,” he muses. “She wore a mask, but not always. And she went to her hairdresser every week. That was important to her. I don’t know if the people there wore masks. But I honestly can’t say how she got COVID.”

It’s a mystery too many people have been forced to face, in the wake of a disease so fluid it poses what seem like daily challenges to existing data.

“There is so much we don’t know about the virus,” Dale observes. “And at the same time, there’s so much we do know, and are constantly learning. It’s remarkable, how many medicines we have and how many we’re developing. You know, when I started in medicine, the PDF — Physician’s Desk Reference — was maybe a couple of inches thick. Today it’s gigantic! Medicine is constantly evolving. That’s the good news.”

Although the doctor is no longer practicing, he keeps up with the latest news. “I still read my journals,” he says. “And I still bike. I exercise three times a week; I have a treadmill and an elliptical machine in the basement. And I work out on the stationary bike.”

It’s probably exactly what Pauline would expect of him — no sitting around doing nothing, that’s for sure.

What does he miss most about her?

“Everything,” he sighs, looking down at his hands. “I still can’t believe she’s gone. That was her chair.” He motions to a comfortable chair behind him. “And I still look over and expect her to be sitting there.”

Hart trooper receives outstanding achievement award
  • Updated

Michigan State Police Trooper Matt Demny, a graduate of the 122nd Trooper Recruit School. assigned to the Michigan State Police (MSP) Hart Post, has received the Community Policing Outstanding Achievement Award for his outstanding efforts to make a positive impact in the lives of people in his community. Col. Joe Gasper, director of the MSP, recently recognized his efforts during a virtual ceremony.

Trooper Demny is looked to as a true leader in his community where he has worked tirelessly to build solid relationships with first responders, businesses, organizations and community members alike. He also has a noticeable presence in the Mason County school system through programs he participates in, including “Read with a Hero” and a charity dodge ball game called “Kids versus Cops.”

Recognizing a financial need within the Pere Marquette Fire Department, Trooper Demny took it upon himself to coordinate a community grant between Walmart and the fire department, which hosts a detachment of the Hart Post, that resulted in a $1,000 grant for facility upgrades. In December, Trooper Demny spearheaded an effort to purchase a swing set for the children of Grant Township Firefighter Michael Buitendorp, who had tragically died on-duty the month before.

During the holidays, when Trooper Demny became aware of leftover meals at a local church, he enlisted the assistance of the Mason County Sheriff’s Office, and together they coordinated a meal drop-off to an unemployed Army veteran and his disabled child, whom he had previously met while on patrol.