Washington doctor who nearly died from coronavirus recovers after experimental treatment

SEATTLE — A Washington state emergency room doctor got sick with the coronavirus and almost died. But he got an experimental treatment at Swedish Hospital that’s been used on about 40 patients there so far -- and it might have saved his life.

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The drug he got is called tocilizumab (brand name Actemra) – currently Food and Drug Administration-approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors were trying several treatments at the same time, so they can’t say for certain that it’s tocilizumab that saved his life, but they believe the drug may have played a role.

Dr. Ryann Padgett, an emergency room doctor at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, got sick with the coronavirus last month.

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“In matter of 24 hours, he went from breathing on oxygen to requiring a ventilator and some advanced therapies. From there, he continued to get worse,” said Dr. Matt Hartman, of Swedish Hospital’s First Hill campus. He was so severely ill, he ended up in the hospital for 24 days. At one point, he was transferred to Swedish Medical Center in critical condition.

They had to take over his lungs and pump his blood into a ECMO machine to give it oxygen, then pump it back into his bloodstream.

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“His kidneys weren’t working. We had to take that function over, as well,” Hartman said.

Doctors at Swedish say some people who get the coronavirus take a sudden turn for the worse. They believe it’s likely tied with the immune system responding in a disordered way, damaging the body.

“These patients who get really, really sick quickly,” Hartman said.

With no other options, doctors decided to try an experimental treatment, including tocilizumab.

“The medicine blocks one of the messengers that could be leading to this overreactive immune system response to the virus. So it may be helping by preventing the immune system from overreacting,” explained Dr. Krish Patel, with the Swedish Cancer Institute.

Hartman said doctors constantly monitored Padgett, hour by hour.

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They started seeing results in four to five days. And then Padgett came off of the machines that were keeping him alive.

“He had a really rapid improvement,” Hartman said. “It was wonderful to see -- the team is ecstatic.”

And shortly after, Padgett was able to go home.

A statement Friday from Padgett and his family said in part:

"When the need is the greatest, we’re also the most appreciative. As an emergency room physician, my family and I knew how sick I was with coronavirus. We also knew I was receiving the very best care from the very best team.”

Doctors who cared for him say it hits close to home. They’re hopeful Padgett will be able to make a full recovery.

“It’s really, really humbling to be able to care for a colleague. It’s also very scary. You want to do everything you can to help them, and I would say it is very personal on that note,” Patel said.

“They go out there every day, they care for all of us. And when they get sick, we want to be able to help them with every way we can,” he said.

Swedish will be joining a global randomized clinical trial to study the effectiveness of tocilizumab that could start here as early as next week.

Full statement from Padgett and his family:

“When the need is the greatest, we’re also the most appreciative. As an emergency room physician, my family and I knew how sick I was with coronavirus. We also knew I was receiving the very best care from the very best team. We’re forever grateful for the EvergreenHealth community that has supported my recovery and marvel at the care that makes it possible for me to be at home today. Special thank you also to Swedish Medical Center for the exceptional care and kindness they, too, provided to me. I thank you for all you have done for us and for respecting our privacy as our family continues to recover.”