The voices pierced through the darkness.
Conway resident Debbi Williamson was admitted to Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital on May 1 after experiencing worsening symptoms from a COVID-19 infection. Within 48 hours, her condition deteriorated so swiftly she was placed in a medically induced coma and, for 12 days, she relied on a mechanical ventilator to breathe.
“This might sound crazy, but when I was under, I remember someone reading me a Bible verse two times,” says Williamson, who is just 56 years old. “Someone else would come by and say, ‘Ms. Williamson, you are going to pull through this. Don’t you worry – we’ve got you.’
“There was a lot of, ‘Ms. Williamson, it’s going to be OK.’”
Williamson, who works in a non-clinical role at Tidelands Health as a pre-access authorization representative, suspects she became infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus when she met with a friend who later tested positive. She credits the care she received at Tidelands Waccamaw with saving her life.
Listen to this Better Health Radio podcast as Tidelands Health family medicine physician Dr. William Jackson Epperson explains why it's important to get the medical care you need during the pandemic.
She was the first patient at Tidelands Health, the region’s largest health care provider, to receive a convalescent plasma donation through a nationwide initiative coordinated by the Mayo Clinic. Tidelands Health is a participant in the innovative program, which is designed to determine if antibodies in blood plasma transfused from a patient who has recovered from COVID-19 can safely and effectively help patients with severe COVID-19 cases recover more rapidly.
“Honestly, I think that is what saved my life,” Williamson says. “The fact they intubated me and put me under until that plasma came in was another part of that lifesaving effort.
“You had to slow time down a little bit. I believe 100 percent that is why I’m here today.”
Signs of trouble
Eight or nine days after visiting with her friend, Williamson received a call that a COVID-19 test she took came back positive.
“It was like all of a sudden everything started happening,” she says. “I had a fever. I didn’t feel good.”
As the hours passed, her condition continued to deteriorate rapidly, leading her to seek care at Tidelands Waccamaw.
The decision was painful because she knew her husband and 20-year-old son wouldn’t be able to visit her for their own safety.
“The hardest thing was to tell them, ‘I have to go, and I don’t know if I will be back,’ ” she says. “As a mother, it was very heartbreaking.”
Williamson remembers spending the first night in the hospital, but sometime the next day everything went dark.
Her COVID-19 infection continued to worsen, focusing its wrath on her lungs. Her body’s ability to absorb oxygen reached a critical level, prompting her care team to put her in a medically induced coma and on a mechanical ventilator to breathe.
“She rapidly developed what we refer to as ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome,” says Dr. Desmond Young, a Tidelands Health critical care and pulmonary specialist and one of several physicians who led Williamson’s care. “That is a worst-case scenario for these patients from a lung standpoint.”
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Williamson received advanced treatments to help her battle the disease. Based on emerging evidence that COVID-19 patients are at high risk of potentially fatal blood clots, she received anti-coagulation therapy and was kept in a prone position to help better oxygenate her blood.
Still, at the depths of her battle, Dr. Young says, Williamson had less than a 10 percent chance to survive.
“She was about as close to dying as you can get,” Dr. Young says. “She literally was minute to minute.”
Many people were involved in Williamson’s care, Dr. Young says, including physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and more.
A turning point came with the transfusion of convalescent plasma through the Mayo Clinic-led initiative. By then, Williamson had shown some signs of improvement, and her recovery accelerated quickly following the transfusion.
“Whether that was due to the convalescent plasma or a natural improvement in her disease process, I can’t be certain,” Dr. Young says. “She certainly didn’t have any immediate adverse effects from it, and I am hopeful this is one of multiple therapies being studied that may prove beneficial in the treatment of coronavirus.”
Williamson says she approved the use of convalescent plasma when she arrived at the hospital and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again. Information about her illness and recovery will be shared with the Mayo Clinic to help determine the overall effectiveness and safety of the treatment.
On Saturday, May 16, Williamson was taken off the ventilator and began to breathe completely on her own. Throughout the process, her family received daily updates from her care team.
Williamson awoke to find an emotional message from her son on her cell phone that arrived while she was still in a coma.
“It says, ‘Mama, I want nothing more than for you to come home,’” she says.
Back on her feet
With the worst of her illness behind her, Williamson was discharged from Tidelands Waccamaw to continue her recovery at home. Dr. Young says her long-term prognosis is excellent.
People need to take COVID-19 seriously by practicing social distancing, wearing face coverings and taking other precautions to keep themselves safe, Williamson says. And if you’ve recovered from COVID-19, look into donating plasma – something Williamson plans to do to help other people fighting the virus.
The American Red Cross collects the plasma, and donors undergo the usual screenings before donating. Find more information, and register to donate by going here.
“I think too many people are underestimating what this pandemic is,” Williamson says. “If this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody.”
As to the voices she remembers hearing while in a coma, she’s not sure how she could have perceived them. But she’s got a pretty good idea who spoke to her.
“That was our nursing staff,” she says. “I have to say, they are awesome at what they do.”
Dr. Desmond Young
Critical care and pulmonary specialist, Tidelands Health
University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Medicine
University of South Florida College of Medicine, Internal Medicine
University of Missouri at Kansas City, School of Medicine