When COVID struck a family dedicated to fighting it
Published on: 06-02-2020
The Hamel family has deep roots in Berrien Springs and the Andrews University community. Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, and growing up in Berrien Springs, Loren and Lowell Hamel returned after medical school at Loma Linda University. 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.
Loren is close to all of his brothers, but as identical twins, he has a special relationship with Lowell. They’ve worked together to provide for the health-care 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. Lowell was serving as chief operating officer of Spectrum Health Lakeland.
Since the first reported deaths because of COVID-19 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, 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 said 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.
Loren and Lowell left for the hospital early every morning, seven days a week, in their attempts to prepare the hospital for the crisis. They were devoting all their time and energy to ensuring that the hospital was ready, the hospital staff adequately trained, and the needed equipment and personal protective gear on hand.
COVID Comes to Town
On Sunday evening, April 6, Lowell called Loren to report that he had a fever, some mild body aches, but no cough. 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 that he would be OK. Lowell was resilient and healthy. We believed his immune system was strong. Because of the hospital’s no-visitors policy, we stayed in regular contact through FaceTime and could observe him getting worse by the day. Lowell’s daughter, Danelle, posted a tribute on Facebook Easter Sunday, April 12, that read in part:
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, but I know exactly why. . . . 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. . . . We want 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 a day or two earlier.
While in the ICU, Lowell’s condition continued to deteriorate. On Wednesday, April 15, I posted 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. . . . 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.
The next day, 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 he gave his consent to be put on a ventilator. As a physician, he fully understood the implications of what was happening. He realized that he might not wake up.
Several hours after being put on the ventilator, Lowell was finally able to receive an infusion of convalescent plasma.
The limited experimental trials 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. Lowell’s heart rate dropped to 18, his blood pressure plummeted, and multiple organs and systems were impacted.
As a family, we knew statistically that 85 percent of all those on ventilators die. To use the language of Scripture in John 10:10, the COVID-19 virus had come into our community like a thief, whose objective has been to kill, to steal, and to destroy. Its presence separated us from those we love and care about, prevented us from worshiping together as communities of faith, shut down our schools, and began to destroy our economy. It has awakened in each of us a sense of our own vulnerability.
On Sabbath, Lowell’s older brother, Gary, and his wife, Jeannie, along with Loren and me met with a group of friends via Zoom for an hour and a half to 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.
The very next morning, 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 lab and oxygen levels began to improve. Over the next few days, Lowell continued to improve at a level that exceeded expectations. 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 could go home, he would likely be in the hospital another two weeks, followed by inpatient rehabilitation and two to three months recovery. But the Sabbath after being taken off the ventilator, God’s healing power rested on Lowell, 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 taken off the respirator to going home to that of being on a rocket.
The Net of Support
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.
First, the quality and depth of family support that he felt, starting with his wife, Judy, their three children, his brothers, his dad, other extended family members, friends, and community.
Second, the quality of medical care provided by Spectrum Health in St. Joseph and Grand Rapids. He credits his recovery to his health-care team’s extraordinary willingness to collaborate and innovate. Doctors and nurses caring for COVID patients, particularly during high-risk interventions, are the real superheroes.
Third, and most important, Lowell is strongly convinced that his survival and rapid improvement is an answer to prayer. He believes that the miracle is not that God hears our prayers; the miracle is when people hear the voice of God calling them to pray and they respond wholeheartedly.
We are so grateful to be part of a community that hears the voice of God and answers His call. Our Father in heaven invites us to join Him in the battle against evil, against sin and suffering.
Loren closed our family Zoom meeting on that first evening that Lowell was home with the following prayer:
Heavenly Father, 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. We thank You and praise Your name. In the name of Jesus, amen.