SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Kian Olson is 19-years-old and just weeks ago was all set to begin his sophomore year at the University of South Dakota. But his plans were changed when he contracted COVID-19 and ended up in the hospital.
Olson’s mother, Nissa Sugden, says that her son was unvaccinated.
“He was not vaccinated. He had very strong beliefs against that,” said Sugden, who spoke with KELOLAND News via Zoom. “His sister and I were vaccinated and it kind of was a contention between all of us, but he just believed that [COVID] didn’t exist.”
Sugden says Kian’s father has been battling pancreatic cancer for six years, and is now in hospice. “Kian, before going back to school was kind of helping him and taking care of him and he still wasn’t on-board with getting vaccinated.”
When asked what may have led her son down the path to vaccine and COVID denial, Sugden cited politics as the fault.
“I unfortunately believe that a lot of this has turned into a political thing. I think that the timing of the election of the time that COVID comes out — it’s mixed; it’s intertwined and that’s unfortunate because it’s really not a political thing, it’s a medical thing.”
Sugden appeared to grapple with the consequences of her son’s decisions throughout our interview.
“That’s the whole thing — it didn’t have to be this,” she said. “And I was angry at him. I was so angry at him when he got it because here we go, I don’t want it to be ‘mom was right’ but here we go, right — he was unvaccinated. He chose not to vaccinate — and he regrets it.”
Sugden isn’t angry anymore. “He’s my son and I love him dearly, and we can’t do that,” she said.
Olson, for his part, does seem to regret his choice. His symptoms were first noticed on Monday, August 16, and he tested positive for COVID the next day. On August 19, two days after the positive test, Sugden took him into urgent care at the Mayo Clinic in Mankato, Minnesota.
“He needed to be wheeled over to the emergency room because they needed to at least give him things for dehydration,” she said.
Olson remained in the ER for 24 hours under observation, and was diagnosed with COVID pneumonia.
“What I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t going to be able to see him or be with him,” said Sugden. “By the time I got around to the emergency room side to park, he was like 20-feet away in a wheelchair waiting to be admitted into observation at the ER, and I couldn’t go a step further. That was — that was hard, knowing that whatever happens from here, I’m not going to be able to be with him.”
Following the 24-hour observation period, Olson was discharged. “Either his levels weren’t bad enough or there wasn’t room,” said Sugden. “At that point, I heard in Minnesota there wasn’t a single bed available.”
By Saturday, August 21, Sugden says that her son was not doing well.
“I went and got an oximeter to follow his oxygen levels because that’s where my concern was,” she said. At this point, Olson’s mother said he did not want to go back into the hospital.
“He was afraid they weren’t going to do anything, and it was kind of a battle to get him to go back in,” said Sugden. “I promised him that if we go in, it’s going to be at the levels that we have to do something because — I mean this is where we’re looking at death. You can’t go down any further on these oxygen levels.”
That Saturday, August 21, Sugden took her son back into the hospital.
“Once he got up to the [progressive care unit] and talked to the nurse — and he talked to me too — he told them ‘as soon as I possibly can, will be vaccinated’,” said Sugden.
That date is a ways down the line however.
“90 days after he’s all good to go,” said Sugden of when her son can get vaccinated. “Day 91 he’s getting it done.”
This shift in attitude toward the vaccine has been a huge milestone for Olson. After refusing the vaccine for so long, his illness has served as a wake-up call for many people in their lives.
“I do have family and friends that did not get vaccinated until this reality has hit them,” said Sugden. “Everybody loves Kian and he’s touched so many lives that now they’re making that change too.”
Sugden highlights this effect, mentioning one of Kian’s friends that has recently chosen to get vaccinated, who had been very vocally opposed to the vaccine.
This acceptance of reality Sugden has seen from those who know Kian and who held similar attitudes toward COVID and vaccination has been something Sugden has welcomed.
“It’s okay to change your mind on it,” she said. “Even if you’ve been the most vocal about it, it’s okay. Don’t put anybody through this if you don’t have to.”
On Monday, August 23, Olson was moved from the Progressive Care Unit (PCU) to the ICU, where he was placed on a ventilator. Sugden spoke on the phone with her son for the last time the day before. “He was very scared about being ventilated,” said Sugden, choking up as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Since that day, Sugden has not been able to hear from her son.
“He’s unconscious,” she said. “The only way I know he’s actually hearing us is his reaction.”
According to Sugden, the hospital has had Olson sedated since being intubated. “They bring his sedation down to do some cognitive testing,” she explained. “Asking him to wiggle his toes and squeeze his hands.”
“He’s such a fighter,” said Sugden of her son. “He’s definitely hearing that and reacting to those prompts.” Olson does not come fully out of sedation though. “He gets pretty agitated,” said his mother, “they don’t keep him at that level for very long because then they have to increase the oxygen and everything.”
While Olson still has a long way to go (his mother notes that his illness has still not reached it’s peak), there has been progress. Sugden says that from the day he went on the ventilator, the hospital has had him lying on his stomach to more easily allow the machine to breath for him.
Since August 26, Sugden says that her son has been on his back for about a full 24 hours. “That’s the goal,” she says, “get him on his back and not needing the ventilator.”
Sugden, with the support of her friends, has remained strong throughout this process, a fact that became apparent throughout the interview. To her, the point of telling her family’s tale is to try to help others.
“I just want to get the story out so that people can follow along,” she said. “If that takes me being vulnerable and telling the hard truths — there’s going to be more setbacks; there’s going to be more roadblocks — overall he’s getting better. If this story can help people to just do it — just do it. Just get vaccinated. It’s worth it.”
Throughout their journey, Sugden has had the support of the hospital staff. “I cannot say enough for the care and support that he’s been given there,” she said. “And me — most of the nurses are parents themselves, so it’s heart wrenching for them to see their children in Kian.”
Since Sugden cannot physically visit her son, these nurses have been her lifeline to keeping contact with him. “They’ll tour the room for me — I’m with them on the rounds — they let me listen in on it.” Sugden praises the staff for being straight-forward with her on her son’s condition and for including her.
“They’re being mom for me,” she said with a sad smile. “They’re being mom for me — and I can’t thank them enough.”
Although the situation for Olson is still severe, his mother remains hopeful.
“I have no doubt he’s gonna come out of it,” she said, blinking back tears, “He just kind of needs to hurry up because I’m getting impatient.”
Sugden tells us that her son is majoring in political science at the University of South Dakota, and that he wants to be a lawyer. She made sure to mention that she has spoken with USD’s Vice President and Dean of Students, Kimberly Grieve, as well as her son’s professors, and says that they have been amazing.
A GoFundMe has been set up for Olson by Sugden’s friends Jen Nielsen and Jennifer Wettergren, who have been by her side throughout. If you would like to donate you can find that fundraising page here.
If you would like to stay updated with Olson’s progress, you can do so through his CaringbBidge page.