Archives

Photo by Michelle Hamel

June 1, 2020

Our Family's Journey with COVID-19

The Hamel family has deep roots in Berrien Springs and the Andrews University community. Born in St. Joseph and growing up in Berrien Springs, Loren and Lowell returned after medical school at Loma Linda and residency at Hinsdale to practice medicine

When I moved to Berrien Springs in 1990 as a widow with three young sons, the two of them were practicing medicine together at the University Medical Center on the campus of Andrews University. 

Marrying into Loren’s family was a blessing. Loren is close to all of his brothers but, as identical twins, he has a special relationship with Lowell. They have worked together to provide for the healthcare needs of our community for more than 35 years, as both primary care physicians and hospital administrators. When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, Loren was serving as president of Spectrum Health Lakeland and Chief Strategy Officer of Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, and Lowell was serving as Chief Operating Officer of Spectrum Health Lakeland while continuing to practice medicine part-time in Berrien Springs.  

Since the first reported deaths due to COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, in late December, both Loren and Lowell watched the course of the virus. When the first cases were reported in Michigan, they were in the process of preparing the hospital for the crisis. On Saturday evening, March 14, we met together as a family. Loren and Lowell had roles within the community and, inevitably, would be exposed to the virus. Two of our sons, two of Lowell’s daughters and my sister also would be on the front lines, seven family members altogether. Nine days before the governor of Michigan issued a shelter-in -place order for the State of Michigan, we agreed as a family that this would be our last family gathering and that those who could would self-isolate until this was over. Loren told our family that, if the course of the virus was anything like it was in Wuhan or Italy, we could very well lose a family member in this pandemic. 

That was a sobering thought. Although I was able to do my work from the safety of our home, Loren and Lowell left for the hospital early every morning, seven days a week, in their attempts to prepare the hospital for the crisis. With great concern for our community, they were devoting all of their time and energy into ensuring that the hospital was ready, the hospital staff adequately trained for the crisis, and the needed equipment and personal protective gear was on hand. Loren and Lowell both rounded throughout the hospital to ensure that things were ready.  

On Sunday evening, April 6, Lowell called Loren to report that he had a fever, some mild body aches but no cough. Overall, he said he felt okay, but they agreed that he should stay home and work remotely. In the next few days his symptoms increased, he tested positive for COVID-19, and was admitted to the hospital.  

We were concerned, but confident at this point that he would be okay. Lowell was resilient and healthy. We believed his immune system was strong. Due to the hospital’s No Visitors policy, we stayed in regular contact through FaceTime and could observe him getting worse by the day. As he worsened, Lowell’s daughter, Danelle, posted the following tribute on Facebook Easter Sunday, April 12: 

I looked through all of my thousands of photos and found that I don’t have many pictures of my dad. It makes me sad today, but I know exactly why . . . He is always behind the scenes . . . He has quietly done this for me my whole life and he has been doing it for all of you who live in Berrien County as this pandemic has threatened us. My dad . . . has worked from before sunrise to after sunset without a break, without rest, to help our community be as prepared as we can be for when COVID-19 comes for us, I’m sure it’s more than 40 days in a row. And now it’s come for him. . . We want him to come home, we need him to come home, so all your prayers, well wishes and good vibes are appreciated. 

That night, Lowell had to be transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. Loren met with the team and the decision was made to transfer to Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids where the experimental treatment with convalescent plasma might be available one or two days earlier. When Loren told me that Lowell would be transferred to Grand Rapids, he also told me that we would follow the ambulance there. He wanted Lowell to know he was not alone.  

 

While in the ICU, Lowell’s condition continued to deteriorate. Four attempts to get convalescent plasma failed. Lowell has a rare blood type which makes finding an appropriate donor difficult. We watched his condition continue to decline almost by the hour. The virus was affecting multiple systems of his body. Loren and others knew Lowell would die unless there was a turn-around soon. The inherent risks involved in putting a patient on a ventilator makes it an intervention of last resort.  On Wednesday, April 15, I posted the following message on Facebook:  

Loren and Lowell have worked together for the past 35 years serving the healthcare needs of this community. Now it is Lowell who is in need of care. I am sad to share that his condition has worsened significantly overnight. Loren says the next 24 hours will be critical as he has reached a point where he needs to be put on a ventilator. Thank you for your continued prayers on his behalf. They are much appreciated.  

Hundreds of people, many of them Lowell’s patients, sent messages saying that they were praying for him. Many recounted stories of things he had done for them and times that he had gone well beyond the call of duty to care for them.  

On Thursday, April 16, Lowell reached a state of acute respiratory failure. Lowell was able to communicate with his wife, Judy, and his children, Danelle, Katrina and Marcus, then give his consent to be put on a ventilator. As a physician, he understood fully the implications of what was happening. He reports that as he was sedated, he realized he might not wake up, that this might be it. Several hours after being put on the ventilator, Lowell was finally able to receive an infusion of convalescent plasma. We set up a family Zoom meeting that evening and Loren shared with the family what was happening. Together we prayed that God would use the plasma to bolster Lowell’s immune system and restore him to health.   

The limited experimental trials that have been done so far show that if convalescent plasma is going to have an impact it usually takes a couple days before the impact can be seen. Lowell continued to deteriorate. During this time, Loren and a team of researchers at Spectrum were scanning the literature to see what was being done around the world. The team at Spectrum was willing to try any approach that seemed promising. Because the lungs of COVID patients are so severely damaged, doctors in other hospitals found that they do better if they lay them on their stomachs. It allows parts of the lungs not as damaged by the virus to do their work. To help Lowell breathe, his doctors kept him on his stomach for up to 20 hours a day for several days. Being on his stomach required much more sedation, however, and sedation carries its own risks. Lowell’s heart rate dropped to 18, his blood pressure plummeted, and multiple organs and systems were impacted.   

As a family, we knew all too well that Lowell could die. We did not approach the throne of grace confident that our Father in Heaven would miraculously intervene to spare Lowell. We knew that statistically 85 percent of all those on ventilators would die. To use the language of Scripture in John 10:10, the COVID-19 virus has come into our community like a thief whose objective has been to kill, to steal and to destroy. It is like an evil, invisible force that can be transmitted to others without our awareness. Its presence has separated us from those we love and care about, prevented us from worshiping together as communities of faith, shut down our schools, and is destroying our economy. It has awakened in each of us our own vulnerability.  

On Sabbath, Lowell’s older brother, Gary and his wife Jeannie, along with Loren and I met with a group of friends via Zoom for an hour-and-a-half to earnestly plead with God for Lowell’s life and for our community. We believe God called this group of men and women to serve as prayer warriors who would mightily intercede before the throne of grace on behalf of Lowell. Several reported that they felt called to both fast and pray. We were deeply blessed by their prayers and their confidence that they were called to pray. We asked that God’s healing power would rest on Lowell during the holy hours of the Sabbath and that healing would begin.  

The very next morning on Sunday, April 19, our family was able to post on Facebook that Lowell was showing signs of improvement. After nine days the battle turned and his labs and oxygen levels began to improve. Over the next few days, Lowell continued to improve at a level that exceeded the expectations of those caring for him. After eight days of ventilation, Lowell showed signs of being able to breathe on his own and was taken off the ventilator. His doctors told Loren that before Lowell went home he would likely be in the hospital another two weeks, followed by inpatient rehabilitation and two to three months recovery. People in our community and in the hospital in St. Joe and Grand Rapids, as well as people around the world, continued to pray for Lowell’s recovery. The Sabbath after being taken off the ventilator, God’s healing power rested on Lowell once again and he experienced dramatic improvement. On Monday afternoon, Lowell was able to go home without the use of oxygen. He describes the rate of improvement that he experienced from the time he was extubated to going home to that of being on a rocket. 

Once Lowell was home from the hospital, we continued to have our nightly family Zoom meetings. During our first meeting, Lowell wanted to share the three factors that he attributed to his survival and recovery, all of which he believed were essential. The first was the quality and depth of family support that he felt, starting with his wife Judy and his three children, and extending to his brothers Loren, Gary and Carl and his dad and other extended family members along with friends and community.  

The second factor is the quality of medical care provided by Spectrum Health in St. Joe and Grand Rapids. He feels immense gratitude to the team of doctors, nurses and other staff who put their own lives at risk to care for him as a critically ill and highly contagious patient. Doctors and nurses caring for COVID patients, particularly during high-risk interventions, are the real superheroes. Lowell also accredits his health care team’s extraordinary willingness to collaborate and innovate.    

 

Lowell’s daughter, Katrina, recognized the importance of family in her dad’s recovery when she created a collage of family pictures, took it to the hospital and asked the nurses to put it at the foot of his bed so he would see it when he regained consciousness and remember why he was fighting to live.
Lowell’s daughter, Katrina, recognized the importance of family in her dad’s recovery when she created a collage of family pictures, took it to the hospital and asked the nurses to put it at the foot of his bed so he would see it when he regained consciousness and remember why he was fighting to live.

 

Most importantly, Lowell is strongly convicted that his survival and recovery was an answer to prayer. Lowell does not believe that it is a miracle that God hears our prayers; he is surprised and inspired by the hundreds of people in our community and around the world who heard the voice of God calling them to pray and wholeheartedly responded. His heart is overwhelmed with gratitude to them. 

As Loren walked the halls of the hospitals in St. Joe as well as in Grand Rapids, hundreds of people from various walks of life and religious perspectives shared that they were praying for Lowell. Many shared that God had called them to pray, some awakened in the middle of the night to pray, others at various times during the day. Some shared that they had been impressed to fast and pray. Yes, as a family we are rejoicing.  We are so grateful to be a part of a community that hears the voice of God in their hearts and lives, and answers His call to prayer. We serve a mighty and powerful God who sits on the throne above with Jesus standing by His side as our Elder Brother. Our Father in Heaven is inviting each of us to join Him in the battle against evil, against sin and suffering. This is a time to reach out in love and support to all those around us, to love each other as He has loved us.  

Loren closed our first family Zoom meeting on that first evening that Lowell was home with the following prayer: 

Heavenly Father, as a family, we praise you. We praise you for not just talking to Lowell but to talking through Lowell to all of us. We are grateful for allowing us to hear your voice. And we thank you for not just healing Lowell, but for the healing you have in mind for a much broader audience, including all of us.  

We thank you that you've nudged us into a deeper relationship with you and into a deeper relationship with each other. We commit ourselves in service to you and in service to others. 

Thank you for the miracle that you have worked through our prayers and through Lowell's testimony and through this tragic pandemic. Again, we thank you and praise your name for that. In the name of Jesus. Amen.  

 

Photo caption: Lowell’s daughter Katrina recognized the importance of family in her dad’s recovery when she created a collage of family pictures and took it to the hospital and asked the nurses to put it at the foot of his bed so that he would see it when he regained consciousness and would remember why he was fighting to live.  

 

L. Ann Hamel, PhD, DMin is a psychologist with the International Service Employee Support team of the General Conference. She provides support and mental health care for missionaries, particularly during times of crisis. She lives in Berrien Springs with her husband, Loren, and has a part-time practice at the University Medical Center.  

 

 Loren and Lowell Hamel | Photo by Michelle Hamel
Loren and Lowell Hamel | Photo by Michelle Hamel