By Mike Brue
GRAND FORKS — Melissa Magnuson says she can sum up her mom, Kristi, in one word these days.
Kristi Magnuson loves the young dogs – chihuahuas Lady and Snickers, and toy spaniel Buddy – living in the house she shares with her parents, Donna and Dean Magnuson. But she’s been unable to take the pooches for walks or car rides for several months.
Magnuson especially cherishes time spent with her grandchildren, but she’s too fatigued and ailing to handle having all of them in the same house at once.
Kristi long relished the 17 years she’s worked with children, mostly as a special needs paraprofessional for Grand Forks Public Schools. Still, she hasn’t been healthy enough to work since early September.
The Magnuson clan is hoping for a turnaround soon for Kristi, especially since a hospital procedure Nov. 12 at Grand Forks’ Altru Hospital for a dangerously enlarged abdominal aortic aneurysm was intended to help extend her life and improve its quality.
The aneurysm had roughly doubled in size, she was told, since it was first diagnosed 10 years ago.
Yet, the weeks since her surgery find Kristi struggling – with pneumonia, staph infections, an unhealed surgical wound, continued chest discomfort and disabling fatigue. She’s made a handful of emergency room visits between recent scheduled appointments.
“It’s just kind of stopped my life,” Kristi Magnuson said, her voice cracking with emotion.
“Pretty down. Pretty down,” Melissa said about her mom, whose 43rd birthday is due in February. “She’s getting really lonely.”
And all of this is happening at the doorstep of a benefit intended to help Kristi with medical and related expenses. She lacks health insurance, and the new federal Affordable Health Care coverage she’s seeking is not yet available.
Saturday’s benefit, featuring a bake sale, silent auction and taco-in-a-bag meal, is set for 5 to 9 p.m. at the East Grand Forks (Minn.) Eagles Club, 227 10th St. N.W. A free-will offering is suggested.
Kristi is “getting nervous about it,” Melissa said. “She really wants to be a part of it. She really wants to attend. She just doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to. I told her to take it as Saturday comes. Most close family and friends know her situation right now.”
It’s a situation they hope improves soon. This is not the Kristi Magnuson her daughter knew – the outgoing, on-the-go mom who “always had a project” around the house – repair, remodel or otherwise – to keep her spare time filled.
And she seems far removed from her days as a youth in Grand Forks, quiet and shy, but an athletic kid who preferred opportunities to play pickup games of basketball, football and other sports with her older brothers, Steven and Kevin. She played in a youth basketball league and also ran cross country, and received her GED from Grand Forks Community High in 1989.
Most specifically, Kristi’s life hasn’t been quite the same since the day in 2003 that she thought she was having a heart attack while working at a home computer.
Hospital tests found no heart problem, and she was treated for excessive heartburn, she recalls.
Several repeated bouts with the severe discomfort resulted in two more emergency room visits. During the latter, her abdominal aortic aneurysm was diagnosed. Shortly, she was taken by air ambulance to the Mayo Clinic complex in Rochester, Minn., and she spent a week and a half of tests and observation there.
Kristi learned that the interior of her aorta – the body’s primary pipeline for oxygen-rich blood – had torn between her heart and groin, the Magnusons said. The force of her blood pressure helped to enlarge a portion of the weakened aorta, creating an aneurysm. That, in turn, put her at risk of uncontrolled bleeding and even death if the damaged aorta ruptured or dissected.
It was all startling news for Kristi, then a single mom of two in her early 30s. She learned that abdominal aortic aneurysms are much more likely in people 65 and older, and much more common in men. However, she also was a smoker, which can be a significant risk factor; and her family has a history of high blood pressure problems.
Her medical team at Mayo determined that the best course of treatment over immediate surgery – which carries its own risks — was to use medications to try keeping her blood pressure and anxiety under control and to try limiting the stress on the aorta. They also prescribed other health and diet changes for Magnuson – quitting smoking among them (she did) – and told her to restrict the amount of weight she lifted. The hope was to limit any additional ballooning of her aorta.
Once back in Grand Forks, Kristi spent most of the next several months bedridden, while her mom, Donna, provided most of the caregiving for teen Melissa and her younger brother Tyler.
Eventually, Kristi returned to her work with special needs preschool children, then at Kelly Elementary. Meanwhile, her health varied, but never so severe as to require hospitalization.
This past summer, with both Melissa, 25, and Tyler, 21, living on their own, Krista planned her own move from her parents’ home. Accelerating health issues helped to quell that notion. She felt chest discomfort, numbness and tingling at times throughout the summer, and made several Altru emergency room visits.
“A lot of it was excessive heartburn, which scares her, because that was her only symptom when she was flown to Rochester” in 2003, Melissa recalled.
The Magnusons said a cardiologist determined that Kristi’s heart was OK, but a vascular surgeon concluded her already damaged aorta had now about doubled in size over the 10 years and had become much more of a risk to rupture or dissect.
The recent surgery involved putting in a stent-graft in an effort to provide structural support to Kristi’s aorta.
Instead of struggling to regain better health, Kristi would prefer to be anticipating her daughter’s marriage in the spring, to fiancé Donovan Decoteau. His two children, Angel, 6, and Damien, 4, will join little Mckenzie, 5, and Karalee, 7, in Kristi’s grandchild mix. Plus, there’s a fifth grandchild, Myleigh, due in mid-January. But wedding plans have been put aside temporarily, Melissa said, in part because of the certainty surrounding her mom’s health.
Kristi really wants to return to work.
It was 1997 when she answered a call from Kelly Elementary preschool to assist in care for special needs preschoolers. Her own son already was in the program. “She was referred to the program for Tyler,” Melissa recalled. “And she never left.”
Several years later, at Kelly Elementary, Kristi started regular work as a paraprofessional for children with various physical and learning disabilities. About five years ago, her job shifted to Phoenix Elementary preschoolers.
She derives joy in “watching the kids grow and change,” she said. “I like to give kids an extra hand, I guess. And extra love.”
Her colleagues and others associated with her work “have been calling and checking in with me weekly to see how she’s doing. They’ve sent get-well cards and flowers,” Melissa said.
The mention of Saturday’s benefit sometimes can prompt Kristi to weep. “I first didn’t want to take anything from anybody,” she said in a recent interview. “There are a lot of people out there besides me who need help. . . . I don’t know. It leaves me with a funny feeling.”
In the end, Kristi has accepted the fundraising efforts, driven primarily by Melissa, Tyler and their friends. “The kind hearts,” Kristi said softly, “make me feel good.” Perhaps that will have a healing effect.