In the last several weeks, the Monitor and other news outlets have brought readers, listeners, and viewers an abundance of coronavirus and COVID-19 coverage. Most of the coverage takes the form of cautionary notes from doctors and healthcare officials. This is crucial information to share but sometimes it lacks the personal, human element. This is largely because talking to actual COVID patients and those who have recovered is a difficult task. Not everyone wants to share that information. So, this week we are fortunate to be able to offer the account of someone who has gone through the illness and was generous enough to share his story.
Richard Hammen, 64, is a farmer from Clarion. In late May, Hammen said he had been afflicted for several days by what he thought was just a “bad, bad cold.” When he was not feeling good after a full workday on a Wednesday, he came home to rest. Later that night though, he knew something was wrong. Hammen said he could not catch his breath for anything. He told his wife that they better head to the ER that night or things were going to go downhill fast.
Following recommended hospital protocol, Hammen and his wife called ahead to Iowa Specialty Hospital (ISH) in Clarion. The hospital asked about symptoms and advised Hammen to head to Belmond where they are treating most COVID patients. When he arrived in Belmond, they took a chest X-ray and found that he had walking pneumonia.
At that point, Hammen says he did not really think he had COVID, although they did test him that night when he got to the hospital. He adds that he had some body aches, but only a mild fever of 101.7 degrees and that was only for a short amount of time.
Hammen ended up being admitted to the hospital, not strictly because COVID-19 was suspected, but because of his breathing problems. Dr. Amanda Tew, ISH Family Medicine Physician and Hammen’s personal physician who stayed in contact with the team treating him, explained that his deteriorating breathing was the big concern. She adds, “In determining if a patient needs hospitalization, there are certain criteria that are looked at, such as their oxygen levels, work of breathing, chronic health conditions, etc. His illness was severe enough to meet the criteria to be admitted into the hospital.”
The next day, Thursday, Hammen said it was confirmed that he did in fact have COVID-19.
By then, he was already receiving respiratory therapy and oxygen to help with his breathing. He says that he never had to be put on a respirator though. Hammen admits that seeing his care team don full PPE with the suits, gloves, and masks before they came in his room was a little disconcerting. He emphasized though that he never thought he was in grave danger. “I didn’t think I was going to die. I was really uncomfortable though,” he stated.
Dr. Michael McLoughlin, ISH Internal Medicine Physician, who helped treat Hammen explained that in Belmond, Mr. Hammen was in an isolation room that is separated from other rooms by several doors. He added that the room “has negative pressure so the air is completely changed about every ten minutes.” This is important as coronavirus is transmitted in respiratory droplets and some research indicates it can linger in the air.
Dr. Tew notes that the severity of the illness is extremely variable for patients. “The most difficult part about this virus really has been that it's different for everyone,” she said. “One person will have no symptoms, another will have a sore throat or a little cough, another will have terrible fatigue and body aches with fever, and yet another will have severe respiratory illness, and they could all be in the same family because it can manifest so differently.”
After a little over a day in the hospital, Hammen said his doctors asked him a question that would change the course of his illness. They gave him a few therapy options: tough out his illness or try a therapy called “convalescent plasma” that had been showing promising results for COVID patients.
Tew explained what this therapy is. “When a patient has COVID-19 and has recovered, they make antibodies. These antibodies can be found in the plasma. Convalescent plasma is when the plasma of a recovered COVID-19 patient is transfused into an ill patient to boost their ability to fight the virus.”
Jessica Rooker, ISH nurse practitioner and hospitalist who also helped treat Hammen, added, “We have utilized it on a handful of patients and have found that symptoms improved within 24-48 hours here at ISH.”
In Hammen’s case, he didn’t even have to wait that long before he was seeing positive results. He affirms that less than 12 hours later, his breathing was better and his blood oxygen was improving. Hammen repeatedly called the plasma therapy a “miracle” given how much it helped him and how quickly. This doesn’t seem like too much of an exaggeration given that less than a half day after he received the plasma transfusion, he was discharged from the hospital.
This treatment was Hammen’s saving grace, but Dr. Tew notes, “Convalescent plasma has benefited some patients but not everyone may respond to the treatment.” She adds, “The main treatment for COVID is still supportive treatment.”
McLoughlin commented on other treatments they are using at ISH. “They include dexamethasone (a steroid that has recently been proven to decrease the risk of dying from COVID in certain patients) and remdesivir (a new anti-viral medication that has shown some ability to help in COVID).”
Hammen headed home from the hospital on a Saturday after being admitted Wednesday night. He says that he was better but by no means back to feeling 100%. “I was breathing better but I was still sick. The illness just saps you of your energy. I couldn’t even walk across a room without getting tired.” He also added that he had no appetite for a few days.
Though he was home, Hammen also notes that he was still talking to his doctors and the public health nurses often. Dr. Tew asserted, “Once a patient is discharged home, we follow them closely. They may be sent home with a device that can monitor their oxygen levels and make sure the levels are continuing to improve. We are also utilizing our telehealth services so that we can do follow-up visits with patients. It is important to remember that people do recover and can go back to their normal lives.”
Hammen says that for him, it wasn’t quite business as usual right away, but he admits to being back in a tractor only a few days after he got home. He emphasized though that he was isolated for weeks after his illness and didn’t go out in public at all.
Now, even days after his quarantine period has ended, Hammen says he is still very cautious about social distancing. He will move to the back of the line at a store or leave if there are too many people. And he calls ahead to businesses to let them know he’s coming. “I just don’t want to give it to anyone,” he says.
Weeks after his illness, Hammen explains he still isn’t sure where he got the virus. He also worries about other people getting sick now that life is getting closer to back to normal. He is concerned about events going on and is especially worried about kids transmitting the illness to older folks. “I would just say be very careful, especially if you have any health problems or are older. This thing is a silent sneaker-upper.”
Hammen’s physicians are happy that he is doing well, and like Hammen himself, add that caution is still necessary for everyone. Handwashing, covering mouths, social distancing and wearing a mask are needed practices we hear about daily, but are still vital.
Now, Richard Hammen is back to work on his farm. But he won’t soon forget his brush with COVID. He adds that he would be happy to donate his own plasma if it will help others. He says, “It never crossed my mind that I would end up sick with this. But in the end, the treatment was a true miracle.”