For once, Dr. Ryan Padgett’s body was failing him. When the former Northwestern football player who’d taken precious few sick days throughout his career was rushed to Swedish Cherry Hill hospital with a case of Covid-19, his heart, kidneys, and lungs weren’t functioning properly. “You’re starting to see multiple systems give way,” says Dr. Samuel Youssef, a cardiac surgeon who treated Padgett at Swedish in mid-March. “That’s what happens right before impending doom.”
But over multiple weeks, Youssef and a team of about a dozen medical workers deployed an extreme form of life support that brought Padgett back from the brink of death. At an early stage of the pandemic, his harrowing story drew national headlines, serving notice that a healthy 45-year-old—a frontline worker—could contract a severe case of the virus. It also underscored just how quickly a person’s condition could deteriorate. “What was shocking to us was the rapid escalation of sickness,” says Youssef.
As an emergency department physician at EvergreenHealth near Life Care Center of Kirkland, Padgett had tended to some of the country’s first Covid-19 patients in early March. He developed symptoms of the disease shortly thereafter but gave them a broad-shouldered shrug. He worked out. He skied. He’d be fine. Several days later, though, he found himself intubated at his own hospital—and needing more oxygen.
Doctors decided to transfer him to Swedish. A medical team there could administer an ECMO machine, which would remove, oxygenate, and return blood to his body, acting as an artificial lung, essentially. Youssef and company were plenty experienced with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, but they had never applied the device to a Covid patient.
Padgett’s eventual recovery thus offered a road map to resilience for the group who saved his life. His week-plus on ECMO and drugs to quell his overstraining immune system helped inform several other virus-related uses of the machine in the weeks to come. “It really gave us inspiration,” says nurse Alisha Bouwkamp, “knowing that there is hope of having this level of success.”