When Federal Way resident Sheri Bebbington was hospitalized for COVID-19, doctors told her they would try to save her life.
Bebbington, 57, was the first patient enrolled in CHI Franciscan’s clinical drug trial for Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral drug recently approved for emergency use authorization in the U.S. for patients with severe COVID-19 cases.
To date, 10 people have participated in the trial, which began in early April and is being conducted at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.
Just one month since her initial hospitalization, Bebbington’s battle against the virus has shown her the grace of survival.
Bebbington, who works for a local healthcare organization, said she arrived at work March 27 and went through the standard health screening before starting her shift. When she had her temperature taken, she was told if it had been one-tenth higher, she wouldn’t have been allowed into the facility to work that day.
Bebbington remembers waking up in the middle of the night just hours before with a raging headache — something she said never happens to her — and took Tylenol to stop the pain.
Worried the Tylenol was masking a fever, Bebbington left to work from home. As the hours passed, she began to show symptoms of the coronavirus including a 101-degree fever, a never-ending headache, a dry cough and chills.
Due to her job position in healthcare, Bebbington explained her symptoms over a telemedicine appointment and tested for the virus the next day. Her 62-year-old husband was also required to be tested.
Around this time, Bebbington found she had been exposed to the virus through a friend and not at her workplace. A few days later, Bebbington would learn a family member of the friend had died from complications due to COVID-19.
On March 30, results showed both Bebbington and her husband had tested positive for COVID-19.
“The interesting part about this virus is it seems to take on different forms, and the way I describe it, comes in waves,” she said, noting her prevailing symptoms were loss of smell and taste, along with body aches reaching from the hair follicles on her head and all the way down to her toes. “Overall, I was miserable.”
‘They could hear me gasping’
Sheri Bebbington and her husband, Philip, remained isolated in their home together for the next few days. Family members checked in, calling or facetiming multiple times a day to monitor their conditions.
At the suggestion of her nephew, Bebbington purchased pulse oximeters, which are electronic devices used to measure the saturation of oxygen carried in one’s red blood cells.
By the end of the week, her pulse oximeter read 82%. Bebbington said it felt as if she had a cinder block sitting on her chest.
“They could hear my voice had changed,” Bebbington said of her phone calls with family members. “They could hear me gasping.”
On April 3, Sheri and Philip Bebbington were admitted to St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way.
“There’s something that’s really scary about going into a hospital saying ‘I have COVID’ and understanding the fear that goes along with that,” Bebbington said, adding her gratitude for the compassion and sincerity shown by St. Francis medical staff.
At the hospital, Sheri and Philip resided next to each other in separate rooms receiving EKGs, blood tests and X-rays. When nurses showed Bebbington her X-rays, it showed her right lung had 0% airflow and her left lung had less than 25% airflow.
She was diagnosed with COVID-19 pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Bebbington’s doctors then told her they were going to try to save her life. As a healthy person with no pre-existing conditions and who even runs half marathons, the word “try” stuck out.
“You get struck down with this virus and all of a sudden you’re like ‘excuse me? I might not live?” said Bebbington, overcome with emotion. “It was the most terrifying moment of my life to realize I might not make it.”
Early on when her husband was discharged from St. Francis, the nurse allowed the couple to say goodbye, as Bebbington would be remaining in hospital to soon begin the clinical trial, before his departure on April 3.
“We didn’t say it, but there was the reality that this could be the last time we see each other,” Bebbington said. It was the first time two were faced with the stark reality of a worst case scenario.
‘You feel very isolated’
In Tacoma, CHI Franciscan’s St. Joseph Medical Center had been approved for a clinical drug trial of Remdesivir. After consulting with a scientist at UC Irvine, whom she knew through her sister, Bebbington realized the trial may be a last resort.
She was transferred to St. Joseph on April 4, receiving her first dose of the drug the next day.
“As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, CHI Franciscan has been committed to ensuring that patients receive not only high-quality care in our hospitals, but also access to the latest treatment options,” said CHI Franciscan Chief Medical Officer Michael Anderson, MD. “I’m grateful that St. Joseph Medical Center is able to participate in the Remdesivir trial to best serve our patients, and for our research team for continuing to work with those paving the way on crucial developments.”
The clinical trial is a result of collaborative work with CHI Franciscan pharmacists and researchers, Gilead Sciences Inc., and the CHI Institute for Research and Innovation to secure the research protocol and Remdesivir, according to a spokesperson for CHI Franciscan.
Although she was never intubated or placed on a ventilator, Bebbington remained on oxygen for several days and she developed a blood clot at the site of the IV port.
The worst part of the entire illness is the mental and emotional anguish you experience, Bebbington said, adding that her days in hospital were some of the darkest, most horrific days of her life.
Bebbington was alone in a room with less than 30 minutes of total daily interaction from medical staff for 11 days.
“You feel very isolated with your thoughts and feelings,” she said. Bebbington said her lifeline during this time was technology and the new iPad her kids purchased for her, allowing her to feel connected when physical contact was out of the question.
“I had a choice to either give into the fear of it and focus on the fear, or be in this place where I felt peace knowing that people who care and love me were thinking good thoughts,” she said. “I had to take all of my mental and emotional energy and direct it toward healing.”
In isolation, the entirety of her 57 years was capsulized in 11 days of “these phenomenal, terrifying moments,” she said.
On April 14, when Bebbington was discharged from St. Joseph’s, she was discreetly wheeled down to her anxiously awaiting husband. Once in the parking lot, the couple sat in their car and sobbed together.
“I’m so, so grateful I got my life back,” Bebbington said.
Bebbington and her husband both self-isolated for an additional two weeks until late April upon returning home from the hospital. She hasn’t seen all of her four children yet, but each reunion is an emotional moment.
Now, Bebbington is regaining her strength and respecting the healing process for everything her body has been through. Her husband, Philip, is also recovering well.
There is concern about the long-term damage her lungs may have suffered. Because of the clinical trial, a local pulmonologist will monitor Bebbington for a year.
“It turned my world upside down,” Bebbington said. “One minute you’re living your life, going to work, you’re planting your garden, enjoying your puppies. Then the next minute you’re being told you may lose your life and you have the symptoms to show that.”
Bebbington said this virus is not her story, just a chapter that has made her look at life in a new way — finding ways to be more present in the moment, forgive wrongdoings of others and to care for connections with loved ones with more attention.
“I’m not taking any of that stuff for granted anymore because it was almost taken away from me,” she said.
She urges people to take the illness seriously and do what you can to protect yourself and others by social distancing and abiding by health guidelines.
“Who knows if it’s a miracle, but it saved me,” Bebbington said of the clinical drug. “I feel like I was given a gift by being enrolled in this study. That’s the only reason I’m here talking to you today. I feel like it’s a victory.”