Ellen Edlund, the Billings Clinic nurse who battled for her life against COVID-19, carried dual messages as she traveled through a tunnel of cheering staffers during her discharge.
The first was of gratitude — for her care at Billings Clinic, for the support of family, friends, co-workers and strangers, and for simply being alive.
"It takes a village, and because of all of your guys' love and care and support, I'm leaving here today," she told dozens of employees who gathered for her discharge from the hospital.
The second message was one of caution — an example that COVID-19 can strike down the relatively young and healthy, and a plea for people to follow health requirements like masking and social distancing.
Flaunting those precautions, said Edlund, is "like a suicide mission."
Edlund was hospitalized in late November, and soon moved to the intensive care unit. She spent time on a ventilator and a machine that oxygenates blood, effectively on life support.
"There were times when I was so scared," she said. "I thought I was going to die there for a little bit."
It's not hyperbole.
But Edlund's condition began to improve last week, and her recovery picked up steam.
Edlund has been a nurse for 22 years, and spent 10 of those years in the ICU.
"Now I have a different perspective on it. My life will never be the same," she said.
Most patients in her condition would have been transferred to a different hospital, she said, but Edlund's co-workers volunteered for extra shifts.
"They said no, we want her here," Edlund said.
Kelly Duffy is Edlund's best friend and a fellow nurse at Billings Clinic.
"When your best friend is on the brink of dying from it.... it's just, almost, panic set in," Duffy said.
Nurses and other frontline workers have suffered significant losses since the pandemic hit. A nurses union, National Nurses United, issued a report in September saying more than 1,700 health care workers had died from COVID-19, with 30% of those deaths occurring among hospital workers and 70% among professionals in other settings, such as senior care homes.
Duffy and others rallied around Edlund. An online fundraiser has generated about $24,000 to help with medical bills and other costs. Duffy organized a prayer page on Facebook.
"We wanted to take everything off her plate, so all she had to worry about was the fight," Duffy said.
Edlund repeatedly pointed to that kind of support both from medical staff and the larger community as helping her maintain a fighting spirit.
"I'm just so proud to work for this organization," she said.
At her discharge, Edlund spoke strongly and said she "feels great."
"I just am thrilled to be alive," she said.
She implored others to follow pandemic-related health rules.
"It's not taking away your American rights," she said. "It's just keeping people safe."