Loveland man credits miraculous recovery to medical care, personal touch, convalescent plasma treatment and the goodness of God in his continuing recovery from severe case of COVID-19 while battling cancer
By: Chuck Gibson
LOVELAND, OH (May 28, 2020) – Ron Sikkema went through the same coronavirus symptoms with his wife and three of his four sons in March. They recovered at home, he didn’t. He spent 38 days in U.C. Hospital in West Chester, including 10 critical days on a ventilator, before coming home to Loveland May, 4. Ron Sikkema was at a disadvantage with a weakened immune system from aggressive treatment of lymphoma cancer.
Ron Sikkema receving care from a member of the critical care team at West Chester Hospital (Provided)
Sikkema doesn’t know exactly how it got in, but he believes his whole family caught the coronavirus, except his eldest son Justin, who was isolated on his college campus. Even before March, he was not going out of the house because he was aware of what was going on and sensitive to his cancer treatment. His wife Christine, and sons: Tyler, Ben and Luke, recovered and were cleared by the board of health. They were all sick together and Ron basically made it through the symptoms of coughing and fever.
“I went in because of my condition. I couldn’t recover,” said Sikkema. “I went through the same things they were going through, but then I started to lose my breathing. That’s when I said I gotta get to the hospital because I’m struggling with breathing.”
It was Saturday, March 28, when he arrived at University of Cincinnati West Chester Hospital. With his cancer diagnosis and treatment, Ron’s condition was worse than most patients being admitted with COVID-19. He had been diagnosed with a melanoma spot on his leg last summer. That was removed, but further scans revealed lymphoma. Doctors started aggressive treatment for the lymphoma in October.
“In January, I was six cycles in, got my scan back and I was in remission already and my tumors had shrunk,” Sikkema explained. “The protocols they chose had been really effective.”
March arrived; he just finished a treatment on the 12th. A week later he started experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus.
“Somewhere in that period of time, I caught it because my immune system was very weak,” said Sikkema. “The treatment plan was overlapping where the coronavirus liked. I was really weak and so, susceptible to the virus.”
Those symptoms had begun to clear, he was feeling a little better, but then he went in. He just went down. By Thursday, he had to go on the ventilator. Sikkema was just losing breath every day. They couldn’t get enough in him. It was a sudden change from the first 4-5 days when he anticipated getting better. The lead doctor for his critical care team, Dr. Daniel Tanase, MD, pulmonologist and critical care specialist, says Ron’s case stood out from other COVID-19 patients admitted at West Chester Hospital because he was sicker than most.
“Knowing about his cancer diagnosis, we discussed his case and treatment in detail with his oncologist who remained actively involved in his care during his hospital stay,” said Tanase. “As data from other studies has shown, having significant comorbidities, such as cancer, increases the chance for clinical deterioration, which did happen in his case.”
“”It kind of happened abruptly,” Sikkema said. “My oxygen started dropping. I was hanging in there, then bam!”
It was the middle of the night around 2:30 or 3:30 a.m. he was told they needed to get him down to ICU. His oxygen level dropped too fast. By 5:30 a.m. his condition became more dire. They told him he needed to go on the ventilator and asked if he knew what that meant. Sikkema told them it was fine if that’s what they needed to do.
“I really didn’t know to be honest with you,” Sikkema admits today. “An anesthesiologist gives you some gas and then you’re out. I don’t know what happened for the next 10 days. I don’t have any memory.”
Ron Sikkema during virtual meet interview recalling his recovery from COVID-19 (Chuck Gibson)
The most critical time in Ron’s health status came during those 10 days he was intubated according to Dr. Tanase. NOTE: Intubation is the process of inserting a tube, called an endotracheal tube (ET), through the mouth and then into the airway. This is done so that a patient can be placed on a ventilator to assist with breathing during anesthesia, sedation, or severe illness. It is not an easy process to come off the ventilator and begin to breathe on your own again. The critical care team tried six times before successfully removing Sikkema from the ventilator on the seventh try.
Daniel Tanase Pulmonary Critical Care Internal Medicine managed care for Ron Sikkema at West Chester Hospital (Provided)
“The first week after intubation was a critical time for him,” Tanase said. “Fortunately, after a week or so, his condition started to improve.”
Even the day he was coming out he had no memory of calling his wife and talking with her. He says he just doesn’t know; that he must have been really sedated. Tanase and the care team know how important family at the bedside is. Even with no visitors allowed due to coronavirus safety precautions, they stayed in communication with Ron’s wife, Christine, and considered her feedback very helpful.
“His family was wonderful,” said Tanase. “The day the tube for mechanical ventilation was removed, his family arrived outside the hospital and he was able to see them from his room. That was important for both patient and family.”
Sikkema started coming through. Sitting there in the middle of the night not knowing what he had been through was the scariest time for him. He noticed a considerable loss of weight guessing around 35-40 pounds.
“I was very weak, couldn’t even lift my hands or my feet,” said Sikkema. “The nurse would say ‘Squeeze my hand” I’d be squeezing and she’d say ‘Squeeze my hand!’”
For a day or two, Sikkema came in and out of sleep. He was still on high flow oxygen and knew he was very weak. That next week was just about getting stronger, getting him up. He was happy to be getting up. He says it was then he first began to realize the odds of coming off the ventilator are very low.
“I don’t know what the numbers are, but very low, some say only 15%-20% make it,” Sikkema said. “I was just so happy, I’m here thank God. God is good.”
His focus turned to recovery. Sikkema was conscious, connecting with family by phone, and receiving great care and therapy from the critical care team. Care, he says, they’ve been giving him ever since. Dr. Tanase agrees the plan for his care and the caregivers delivering that care “truly helped make this happen” for Ron.
“There was great teamwork among our nurses and respiratory therapists who all did an amazing job,” Tanase said. “Everyone’s input was greatly appreciated, as his condition changed constantly while he was on the ventilator and we had to adjust the medications and ventilator settings often.”
It started with concern about damage to his lungs. For Sikkema has become a wonderful story of very encouraging nurses and doctors. He always felt like he was going to get better. He realizes he made it through a difficult piece and focused on getting stronger, raising his oxygen levels so they could be managed at home. He was in exceptionally good spirits, not looking back, but focused forward.
“I felt joy every day,” said Sikkema. “I was really happy and I’m still very happy. Every day there is joy. I think people sustain me with prayer. I’m going to get better in God’s time, and I believe that, just a faithfulness there.”
Christine Sikkema, discusses Ron coming home in virtual interview (Chuck Gibson)
Christine Sikkema echoes that sentiment about the role of prayer support from their community of family and friends. The hardest thing for her was not being there for him while he was in the hospital.
“The hardest thing was not being able to visit,” she said. “As a therapist with skills, it was difficult, really painful for me. During the time we were separated, our neighbors carried us through with the prayer chain.”
Ron Sikkema celebrated his 55th birthday in the hospital. Yes celebrate is the right word. Just ask Ron about how the day went. The day started with “amazing texts” followed by the nurses getting him to his window at about noon. Outside the window about 30-40 of his colleagues from P&G were waving signs and singing. They drove from their homes all over to support him on his birthday.
“It brought me to tears,” he said. “It really did. They came from all different levels of the company, vice presidents to everybody. We can’t get that group of people together at work.”
That was one piece. At five-o-clock, the nurses took him to the window again. This time he saw his family and friends outside with balloons, and signs. These were his closest loved ones and closest friends. Even the nurses had made cards for him. He was touched deeply by the outpouring of love. He tried to reflect back on his birthday from a year ago, but couldn’t remember anything more than three birthday cards. He received bags and bags of cards this year.
“I was really humbled, overwhelmed,” Sikkema said. “This one I won’t forget. Even though I was in isolation, I never felt more love. My heart was full that day.”
More than that, colleagues, family and friends brought things in for the staff. The went beyond Ron, and took care of the people taking care of him. It was a lesson in caring and compassion he intends to carry forward.
“You can do so much with a small gesture, kind words, and especially when you put it into a symphony,” he said. “What I learned, what I thought about was ‘My Daily Bread’ – I just need enough for the day. Try to live daily. Things can change on a dime. Find the joy in the day, go through the day, then hope to be better at the end of the day and start again.”
COVID-19 still wouldn’t let go of Ron Sikkema even with the outpouring of love, support and care of family, friends, colleagues and the medical team caring for him in the hospital. He continued to get stronger, but his immune system was not kicking out the virus. His case was high on the list for patients who might receive a trial treatment. Every time he got a swab, the coronavirus was still there, still positive.
“They were deciding my immune system might need a boost,” Sikkema explained.
Ron Sikkema with members of the critical care team at West Chester Hospital (Provided)
Convalescent Plasma was new with very few trials at the time. Dr. David Oh, Medical Director, University of Cincinnati Hoxworth Blood Center helped introduce the possibility antibodies in plasma donated from recovered COVID-19 patients may help patients with COVID-19. He spoke with Christine Sikkema about the possibility of Ron receiving a transfusion of the convalescent plasma to boost his immune system. It was scarce at the time and he advised against it if the patient was on a track to recover without it. In Ron’s case, there was concern because the continuing positive test results with each swab.
“Late Friday, May 1, they decided to give me a unit of the plasma,” said Sikkema. “ They gave me the plasma. They gave it with the intent to see if it could get me a negative on the virus.”
Dr. David Oh, Medical Director, Hoxworth Blood Center, University of Cincinnati (Provided)
Doctors didn’t know for sure. It was, still is a new treatment. Ron says he does not know if it played a role He does know over that first weekend he started feeling better and has been on a great trend ever since. Ron Sikkema went home on that Monday, May 4. As he said, he’s been on a great trend since then.
“Sounds like, with the plasma treatment, he was able to get over whatever hump was there, said Dr. Oh. “Nothing is certain at this time, but I feel really thankful I can be part of this. It is an exciting time. I do believe we benefited him by having this treatment available; at the very least providing hope. I do think it is very likely the convalescent plasma is helping people.”
Dr. Oh expects it will be several months before there is enough case data to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of convalescent plasma as a treatment for COVID-19. He does say clinicians are very excited with the early results. They feel like it is making a difference. Ron Sikkema certainly believes so.
West Chester Hospital staff celebrate as Ron Sikkema is discharged Monday, May 4, (Video Screen Photo)
“It was part of my journey,” said Sikkema about receiving the transfusion on that Friday night. “Saturday I was a bit better. The Sunday, my breathing felt really good. Then they discharged me on Monday. I would do it again. I am very appreciative of those who gave. My wife is a convalescent donor now.”
Christine Sikkema is also home with her husband now. They had quite a send-off on Monday, May 4, when the lobby of West Chester Hospital was filled with cheering nurses, doctors, and staff as Ron Sikkema ended his 38-day stay and headed home to his family and friends in Loveland. The return home has been good for him.
Happy to be home, feeling good, Ron Sikkema on virtual interview (Chuck Gibson)
“His line of recovery raised so much quicker since he came home,” said Christine. “He’s able to move around, be with family, and go outside. We’re eating purposeful diet, a healthy diet. He has to have double the protein while healing. It means a lot to have care come to the house.”
Ron Sikkema and Christine always bring it back to the professional care and outpouring of support from family, friends and neighbors. He is especially grateful for the care he received from Dr. Tanase and his critical care team while in ICU. He continues to receive care at three times a week from the therapist, twice a week from the physical therapist for strengthening and video checks with the doctors.
Dr. Tanase with Ron & Christine Sikkema during special moment as Ron left the Hospital, Monday, May 4, (Provided)
“Dr. Tanase’s team was outstanding,” Sikkema said. “The saved my life.”
Dr. Tanase missed the moment in the lobby when Ron was discharged, but made a trip down from ICU in time to talk with Ron and Christine before they drove away. That special moment told Ron a lot about the professional care and personal care of the staff at University of Cincinnati West Chester Hospital.
“The medical side was wonderful,” he said. “I felt the personal touch. I started building relationships with them. I was there a long time. I wanted to change the paint in my room. I felt like I should pick the chip color for the paint.”