BERRIEN SPRINGS — Dr. Lowell Hamel said the community’s overwhelming love and support during his weeks of fighting the effects of COVID-19 made his return to his Berrien Springs home on Monday possible.
The disease, Hamel said, nearly killed him.
Hamel had started feeling ill near the beginning of April. Then the disease progressed quickly.
“In about a week, maybe a little longer, I went from really a symptom to respiratory failure,” said Hamel, who is the chief operating officer at Spectrum Health Lakeland and has a family practice in Berrien Springs, University Medical Specialties, that is also part of the hospital system.
Hamel, who had no other underlying health issues, said the team treating him at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph made the right decision to transfer him to Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids when his condition started to rapidly decline. He said the Grand Rapids staff had more experience with the new disease because it hit that area a week before it was first found in St. Joseph.
There, he was placed on a mechanical ventilator for eight days before coming off it last Thursday. Hamel said he knew his chances were grim when they put him on the ventilator.
“I went to sleep with the countdown, thinking there was not much chance I was going to be conscious again,” said Hamel in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Even though he’s now home, Hamel said he’s not out of the woods yet and has several weeks of therapy to go through before he, hopefully, can get back to a regular routine.
“There’s still things that could go wrong,” Hamel said. “I celebrate whatever extra days I have. There are times when someone who does well starts to do poorly again.”
Hamel said he believes he has survived so far because of his strong nuclear family, the community’s prayers and support, and the diligence of hospital staff to not be afraid to try different things to save the lives of patients with this new, terrible disease.
The problem is that COVID-19 does not respond to standard care.
“The treatment is just so different from what we do for successful treatments for other lung issues,” he said. “That’s part of, for me, what’s remarkable. This team (at Spectrum Health) is innovating and learning and trying and measuring and adjusting and doing things that are unprecedented.”
While on the ventilator, he said they had him laying on his stomach up to 20 hours a day several of the days, which doctors have discovered allows the parts of the lungs not as damaged by the virus to do their work.
“The way COVID damages the lungs, it has a gravity nature to it,” he said. “It damages the lower parts of the lung. Even sitting up is not as effective.”
Normally, people on ventilators are kept on their backs. And there’s good reason for that.
He said people in respiratory failure feel like they are drowning and want to be on their backs or partially sitting up. They definitely do not want to be on their stomachs.
He said much more sedation is required to keep them comfortable. And sedation carries its own risks.
“Imagine being operated on for eight days,” he said.
Even turning a patient over like that is risky. He said it usually takes one to two people to turn patients, even those on ventilators. But when patients are on their stomachs, he said it takes eight people to negotiate the turning.
“In the midst of catastrophic failure of the respiratory system ... they turned me while I was conscious and had me sit at the edge of the bed and stand up while intubated, with protection and support,” he said. “You just don’t do those things and yet, here you do.”
He said he was conscious enough “to sometimes contribute and sometimes resist.”
“Mercifully, in the end, I was sedated enough not to recall the whole horrible experience,” he said.
Hamel said his family not only gave him emotional support, but because several of them have medical degrees, they were able to really dig in and research what was working and what wasn’t working around the world, regarding COVID-19. His medically trained family includes his twin brother, Dr. Loren Hamel, who is president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, along with his wife and one of his daughters, who are both ICU nurses.
Hamel said a team of 40 or more people, including many of his family members, met every day on Zoom to compare notes on how he was doing and on what new research they may have found.
“I feel so overwhelmed and blessed,” he said.
Hamel also was one of the first patients at Spectrum Health to receive a transfusion of convalescent plasma from someone who had recovered from COVID-19 – a treatment used more typically long ago, before vaccines were made available for other afflictions. Hamel said the hope is that the antibodies from the plasma can help boost the immune system of the actively sick person.
But, as one of his family members said, it was a move carrying long odds – a “moon shot.”
Hamel said there has been no large study done to see if the plasma helps. He explained that there are many variables, including the patient’s immune system and the quality of the antibodies. When patients recover after receiving the plasma, he said nobody knows yet if this is a universal or individual response – or even if it had anything at all to do with the recovery.
In addition, Hamel said his blood type is rare, so finding someone to donate plasma with the proper blood type was a problem.
But it all came together and he said his recovery has been remarkable, so far.
“The rate of improvement from Thursday to Thursday, from being intubated and extubated ... has been like a rocket,” he said.
Hamel said his therapists thought he would need a week or two more of recovery before returning home. But with the support of his family, he made it back home and is now working on thanking all of the people who supported him while he was ill.
Hamel said that what makes the fight against COVID-19 so remarkable is that all of the researchers worldwide are looking for better treatments and/or a vaccine. And medical staff are sharing what works and what doesn’t work.
Michigan has benefited from the experience of other places in the world that started treating the virus in December and January and sharing their knowledge, he said. The first COVID-19 death in Michigan didn’t happen until March.
Hamel explained that since he was taken off the ventilator, he has received hundreds of texts and messages from well-wishers.