The Fight of His Life - Lowell Hamel
Physicians: John Froggatt, MD; Mark Harrison, MD
There are moments in history that alter the world as we know it. The discovery, and subsequent spread, of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is one of them. Shortly after learning of the virus, team members at Spectrum Health Lakeland, along with hospitals across the nation, began working overtime as they prepared to go to war against this invisible enemy. At the center of this effort was the health system’s chief operating officer, Lowell Hamel, MD, who never imagined he would soon be battling for his own life.
In early April, Lowell came down with a slight fever and immediately transitioned from social distancing to complete isolation. The first COVID-19 test came back negative, but he remained in isolation while, over the next few days, the fever, body aches, and fatigue worsened. A visit to the emergency department at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph confirmed the diagnosis of COVID-19 and he was admitted to hospital.
“I was doing everything that could be done at the time, considering the severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) facing all of health care,” said Lowell. “The Berrien County Health Department was unable to identify the source of my infection, nor anyone who contracted the virus from me, including any member of my family. I’m not sure where I caught it, but suspect it was while rounding on the COVID-19 unit in the early days when only caregivers entering a patient’s room were given PPE.”
“Your emotions are exposed to the full range of what we know can happen to people who are diagnosed with COVID-19,” said Loren Hamel, MD, Lowell’s twin brother and president of Spectrum Health Lakeland. “Some get better without getting very sick at all, some get quite sick and then recover, and of course, sadly, some don’t recover. We were faced with all those options as we discovered our chief operating officer was sick with the disease he was committed to fight.”
Lowell spent the next three days in the hospital where his condition continued to decline. John Froggatt, MD, vice president of medical affairs and director of hospital medicine, made the decision to arrange a transfer to Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, where at the time, there may have been a one- or two-day advantage in securing convalescent plasma.
While in the intensive care unit, Lowell watched his numbers steadily decline over the next three days. He recalls becoming increasingly short of breath. Even simple tasks such as rolling over or sitting up in bed took as much effort as he could muster. Struggling to breathe on his own, the time came for him to be placed on a ventilator.
“I had no underlying health issues but my symptoms rapidly worsened,” said Lowell. “I thought my odds of surviving were not even one in 10. I remember quickly calling my wife right before they put me on the ventilator and not knowing if it was the last time we would talk.”
Lowell spent the next eight days on a ventilator including 20 hours a day on his stomach to allow the healthier parts of the lungs to do more of the work–a therapy that requires substantially larger amounts of sedation to maintain comfort and carries its own risks.
He also became one of the first patients at Spectrum Health to undergo convalescent plasma therapy which uses antibodies from someone who has recovered from COVID-19 to boost the immune system of someone who is still suffering from the disease.
Just before his hospitalization, Mayo Clinic received approval for the transfusion of plasma earlier in the course of the disease, rather than the previously approved “compassionate” use given only at end of life. Following approval, both Lakeland and Spectrum Health immediately submitted applications to the FDA to join the study.
Not knowing whether their participation would be approved by the FDA in time for Lowell, infectious disease physician and hospitalist, Mark Harrison, MD, worked over the weekend to secure a single-use FDA exception as a backup plan. Shortly after, both Spectrum Health and Lakeland were approved for participation in the program and Lowell received a successful transfusion.
“I’m not an expert on immunotherapy, but I believe I would not have survived without plasma therapy,” said Lowell. “I have the deepest gratitude for the donor, the providers, and the blood bank staff who worked tirelessly to secure a unit of plasma just as the therapy was becoming available.”
Lowell also credits his recovery to the well-coordinated, multi-disciplinary health care he received and the support of his family, friends, and the hundreds who prayed for him. His family support system of 50 or more, including his twin brother Loren and many others in the medical field, met every day on Zoom to pray, review his numbers, discuss any new research, and plan for the day ahead.
After being taken off the ventilator, a cause for celebration in its own right, Lowell was expected to spend another week or two in the hospital followed by inpatient rehabilitation. But just four days later his lungs had improved dramatically, and he was able to return home without the use of oxygen—surprising everyone, including his care team.
While still cautious, Lowell continues to regain his strength. He has since returned to work and continues to serve his community alongside his colleagues—a privilege he doesn’t take lightly. When asked if he feels lucky, the word he chooses instead is “fortunate.”
“I’m fortunate for my health care team, fortunate to have people around me willing to pray, and fortunate to not have contracted the disease a week earlier when some of the therapies would not have been available,” said Lowell. “I’ve long understood that life is limited although we frequently act as though it’s not. When you have an experience like this it opens your eyes to be thoughtful about the time you have and who you want to spend it with.”
Watch more of Lowell's story in the video below: