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‘My life as changed’

Fergus woman finds new perspective after losing her sight... and then her husband


This photo of Dawn and Ron Synstelien of Fergus Falls was taken a few years ago. About two years ago, Ron passed away after contracting COVID-19. Contributed photo

There have been two times Dawn Synstelien of Fergus Falls thought her world was coming to an end: The first was when Dawn, only in her mid-30s, began losing her vision. The second time was almost two years ago when Ron, her husband of 41 years, died of COVID.

“My life has changed and not the change I would’ve chosen,” said Dawn. “Somehow you have to get beyond it. You don’t see it right away. It’s like the cliche, you can’t see the forest for the trees. But you get past it and you get perspective. Sometimes you have to get beyond it to say, ‘Oh, there is a point.’”

Dawn, the student relations coordinator at Hillcrest Lutheran Academy in Fergus Falls, is legally blind. She uses monitors, software, and voice-to-text for her computer work, but a focus of her job is making connections. Her homey office is a welcoming spot for staff and students to talk.

“This is my gift,” she said. “I have a gift of connecting…to be healthy and successful in this life, you have to be connected. We have lost some of the old days when you could get together and can foods or quilt together.”

As much as she loves being with others and surrounded by family and friends, she longs for special moments like having a cup of coffee with Ron.

“This is the first time in my life that I have lived alone,” she said.

She married Ron shortly after high school when he’d just turned 21 and Dawn was 18.

“I went from living with my parents to being married,” she said.

Within a year, they had their first child, Dawn said. By the time she was 28, the couple had four children.

“I can’t recommend getting married that young, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.

They started married life in Ashby, where they both had strong family ties. Ron’s family farmed, which he was doing in those early years, but he had a passion for youth ministry.

The two heeded that call and moved to Florida where they attended Bible school. They also started their youth ministry focus by conducting Vacation Bible School sessions and youth Bible camps. One youth camp at Lake Geneva drew 300 teens, she said.

Ron moved the family to Pennsylvania to take courses in counseling.

“I knew some of the places where we lived would be temporary so I didn’t want the kids to change schools so much,” Dawn said. “So I homeschooled. We did a lot of field trips and saw a lot of the area.”

The two worked together throughout Ron’s ministry.

“My role in all of this was as support staff,” Dawn said. “I was involved with the ministry with him as well as homeschooling our kids.”

When Dawn began having vision problems, she sought medical help only to learn there is no name for her condition, nor do they know why Dawn is experiencing it. She has a ripple on her retina and, despite several surgeries, there is no way to correct it or regain her sight. It was scary to learn about the vision issues, she said.

“Early on, people would ask how they could pray for me,” she said. “I said, ‘Pray that God prospers my soul.’”

Dawn was determined that it not affect her parenting, and she strove to be part of their children’s lives. When they performed in school functions, she would sit in the back and enjoy their involvement as she captured it all thanks to her binoculars.

Ron became her eyes, she said. He drove here everywhere she needed to be.

When the family moved to Fergus Falls for their children to attend Hillcrest, Dawn spearheaded Exhale, a meeting of young mothers where they can get support. She headed the program for five years and notes that it is a continuing ministry within the community.

“Helping young women is my gift,” she said. “It’s a gift of connection.”

When COVID hit, Dawn had one request of Ron. Since schools and businesses were closing, she wanted a dog. To plead her case, Dawn was equipped with photos of German Sheperd puppies.

Ron wasn’t much of a hard sell on the issue. He agreed to the pup. When someone asked about the couple getting a dog, Ron simply said, “to honor my wife.”

It wasn’t much of a stretch for the couple to have a dog. They’d had German Shepherds in the past. One had lived to be 14 years, she said. Then they got a smaller breed and they had a not-so-stellar dog experience. But the German Shepherd, they thought, would be different.

The puppy, however, had other plans.

Dawn Synstelien with her dog, Pippin. After the loss of her husband in 2020, Pippin has been a true blessing to Dawn. Contributed photo

“I don’t know if I forgot the puppy stage of our other dog, but I don’t remember him pooping in the house or chewing everything,” Dawn said.

She talked to a trainer who agreed to take the dog for three weeks. And she had another request. She asked the dog be trained as a service animal. He would be a good fit on the Hillcrest campus.

Ron and Dawn had scratchy throats over the Thanksgiving holiday and a test confirmed they did, in fact, have COVID. They hunkered down at their Fergus Falls home, but Ron seemed to have the most problems with coughing spells. One night he took the trash cans to the curb and came in the house experiencing a coughing spell, Dawn said. They checked his oxygen level using a monitor. It read 80.

Their daughter, Amy Garvin, took Ron to the hospital that evening. It was a busy place as Fergus Falls was experiencing a wave of COVID diagnoses. But Ron was admitted. Since there was no visitation allowed, the family kept in contact with him via texts and FaceTime.

When a bed opened in the Intensive Care Unit that Thursday, Ron was moved to ICU. The next morning, with no word from him overnight, Dawn called the hospital.

Ron, she learned, had been put on a ventilator, the nurse reported. She then said the family needed to come to the hospital.

“At this time, everyone was sick with (COVID) within our family,” Dawn said. “People just came home to be together when he was admitted to the hospital. So I called our daughter in the Twin Cities, telling her to make the trip home, and we all left to go to the hospital.”

Once at his room, the family was “garbed up” in isolation gear. As they entered his room, Ron was struggling. The family was told he had a seizure from lack of oxygen to the brain.

Friends had gathered outside the hospital, Dawn said. They were all singing. A nurse pulled them aside to say the Lord’s Prayer. Staff were crying. The family said their goodbyes.

Next, she was being asked what funeral home to contact, and she was given his

personal belongings.

“My parents are in their 80s,” she said. “They have made those arrangements. This was all surreal.”

The family took a month to complete the funeral plans.

“I can’t imagine how people do it in a few days,” she said. “It was a nice service that honored Ron and his faith.”

Before they had the funeral, however, Dawn had to get their dog. They had named it Pippin.

“I had to be there to learn the commands,” she said. “There I was, crying, as I was getting the instructions. People were telling me I had to be consistent so the dog would continue learning.”

Once in her home, the dog was different, she said. She was well behaved.

“My goal was, in her training, to be able to bring her to work,” she said.

Hillcrest is a private Christian school for grades Pre-K to 12. It offers boarding to students from the East and West coasts and internationally for students from Norway, Asia, and Africa.

“Some of the kids have had to leave pets behind, and I saw the dog as a pet they could connect with,” she said. “The students love her, but I didn’t know how much I really needed her.”

Pippin has appeared in the school play, Annie, and enjoys greeting students and guests.

Just like her owner, Pippin is making connections and bringing people together.

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