Seattle area ER doctor Ryan Padgett found out quickly how deadly COVID-19 could be, as the first dozen or so patients he saw with the disease didn’t make it.
Padgett, a 44-year-old 250-pound former football star at Northwestern, wasn’t worried about his own health at first, but on March 12 became a patient.
Soon after being admitted to his own hospital with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, he was placed on a ventilator. Five days after that, his lungs and kidneys were failing, his heart was in trouble, and doctors figured he had a day or so to live.
His colleagues realized they had run out of options, and called Swedish Medical Center, another hospital in the Seattle area that had a heart-lung machine known as an ECMO. Doctors there found an astronomical amount of inflammation in his body. After following reports written by Chinese and Italian physicians who had treated the sickest COVID-19 patients, the doctors came to believe that it was not the disease itself killing him but his own immune system.
The immune system normally uses proteins called cytokines as weapons in fighting a disease. For unknown reasons in some COVID-19 patients, the immune system first fails to respond quickly enough and then floods the body with cytokines, destroying blood vessels and filling the lungs with fluid.
His body had gone haywire and was attacking itself in what doctors describe as a “cyotkine storm.”
The doctors tried a drug called Actemra, which was designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis but also approved in 2017 to treat cytokine storms in cancer patients.
Trying to quiet the storm, cardiologists used the drug in combination with high doses of Vitamin C and other therapies. Dr. Padgett was able to clear the virus once his immune system was back in balance. His oxygen levels rose dramatically and on March 23, doctors were able to take him off life support, and four days later removed his breathing tube.
On March 31, he celebrated his 45th birthday with an ice chip instead of a birthday cake, his first sustenance by mouth since the onset of illness. Padgett went home on April 5.
Padgett’s team told him of a 33-year-old woman also hospitalized in a cytokine storm, and he shared their excitment when the same approach helped her recover.
Find more details to this story at the Los Angeles Times.