More than a number
How Webster County’s first COVID-19 victim will be remembered
“I love you, Wab,” Brent “Ben” Newton wrote on his final note to his wife, Jackie, as he asked a nurse to deliver the message to her.
As he struggled to breathe in the bed he would eventually die in, the Post-it note was the last thing she received from him while battling the same virus in another room of the hospital.
“Even on his death bed, he wasn’t worried about himself,” Jackie Newton said. “He asked about everyone else.”
Though the first man to die of COVID-19 in Webster County was known by a few names, it was his spirit that ensured he will be remembered long after his sequence is buried at the bottom of the growing death toll in Iowa. He was 50.
“He was so full of life still — I mean, 50,” said his daughter, Keli Culver, as her voice broke. “He had a lot of wisdom and knowledge to share still.”
His driver’s license said Brent Newton. To most, he was “Ben.” To wife Jackie Newton, he was the “hug bunny,” known for his comforting embrace.
To him, Jackie was “Wab,” short for “Wabbit,” most days. But the shortened nickname could also serve as an acronym.
“What a baby, what a beauty, what a…” Jackie Newton said, laughing as she thought of the other “b-word” uses of Wab.
Ben became known by his nickname after bartending at Chesterfield Lounge, where owner Harold Fuller misheard him say his actual name, Brent. But the new name stuck so well that some in Fort Dodge didn’t realize his legal name until he passed.
To Culver, he was the one man who was like her, the one man who always had the answers. A Sioux Native American adopted by white parents from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he knew what it was like to grow up in a mostly white area.
Their bond was calcified by Culver’s questions about her native roots, when she felt like she didn’t fit in anywhere.
“We were each other’s comfort in building that spiritual connection (to Native American culture),” Culver said.
But to Fort Dodge natives, his infectious smile and talent for being able to lift the spirits of any room is how he shared his love for his hometown.
“That right there — that was his truest,” Culver said, smiling between tears as she looked at her favorite picture of her father, with an ear-to-ear grin. “That, to me, is a true form of happiness.”
In their darkest hour after the Newtons’ nearly 33 years of marriage, it was that smile that carried them over rough waters, even when they knew life was not on the other side of the bridge.
“I looked at him and said ‘You’re gonna be fine,'” Jackie Newton said as she smiled at her husband, being rolled to the intensive care unit, and told him she loved him. “That’s what we say to each other –‘You’re gonna be fine.'”
It was something they started saying to each other as they both struggled with bronchitis and asthma over the years. And though she tried to believe every one of the last words she said to him, in her heart, she had her doubts. Nevertheless, they smiled at each other.
After nearly a week in ICU under sedation and ventilation, his blood pressure and heart rate kept dropping.
“His heart’s gonna quit,” Jackie thought.
Then on May 13, she watched as the nurses ran to his room to respond to a code blue. After CPR, he was revived, but his heart stopped again — but this time, there was no reviving him.
Jackie instructed the doctors to do what she thought her husband would have wanted after 16 years of kidney dialysis and lung problems — one of the most difficult instructions she’s ever given.
“I wanted him to stay alive, but he wasn’t living,” she said, recalling his state under sedation. “He wasn’t there.”
She knew he had been through too much already. He could no longer smile the way he did the last time she saw him awake, and the way that tied all of their life’s memories together.
Jackie’s brother forged a friendship with Ben over their Native American heritage in Fort Dodge in the 1980s. He wanted to become blood brothers with Ben through a Native American ritual where each other’s hands are cut and tied together, but Ben’s parents wouldn’t allow it.
Instead, Jackie’s brother went home to Oklahoma, promising to return with one of his sisters — something Ben didn’t believe would happen. Little did Ben know how eager Jackie, a half Choctaw and half Kiowa girl he had never laid eyes on, was to escape the Sooner State.
“Years later, guess who came back?” Jackie recalled, chuckling.
Each day, she would wait for the high school senior with sparkling “Tootsie Roll-brown eyes” to get home from school. He would joke about marrying the girl three years his senior to collect her Social Security checks.
They were married in December 1987, two months after they met. Never did they think that a virus they hardly knew about a few months ago would be the end of the life they built together over three decades.
The first time they heard of COVID-19 was when it appeared in other states. Culver noticed new signs put up at her work place, advertising a shopping hour for the elderly, at-risk and pregnant. It was the first time fear of the virus struck her as she entered the third trimester of her pregnancy.
She kept working with customers in her retail work environment, following doctors’ advice that it was safe to work. When symptoms started, they mimicked her seasonal allergies.
Until they didn’t.
“It all happened so fast,” she said.
Culver said her physician, who initially wasn’t going to test her for COVID-19, only gave the test as a precaution with her pregnancy. She tested positive in late April and was hospitalized shortly thereafter.
“We weren’t running around. We were following our stay-at-home (recommendations from the state,)” she said, only leaving the house to work and get groceries.
She firmly believes she became infected through her work. She faced the same difficult choice many families are faced with in the pandemic as they are forced to choose between their livelihood and protecting their health.
The last happy memory she has with her father has other complex feelings attached to it: the night they played a board game, and the night he was infected.
“There’s a part of me that feels guilty because Dad came to our house, as family does, to play games,” Culver said, sobbing.
In his trademark child-like excitement, he came over as soon as he could when invited for a game of Risk. He was the first one out of the game.
With the state now completely reopened and no peak in COVID-19 cases in sight, the dismissal many give to epidemiologists and public health experts delivering grim predictions and urgent advice angers them.
“If we catch it, we catch it,” is one phrase in particular that gets to Jackie in her grief, as many clamoring for a return to normalcy dismiss the seriousness of a virus with a 1% death rate.
But in Fort Dodge, Ben Newton was the 1%.
“Obviously, it hit home,” Culver said.