‘I really thought I was losing my husband’: An Anchorage couple shares their experience with COVID-19

Frank Philip spent 18 days hospitalized from the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Before he struggled to breathe and needed intensive care in an Anchorage hospital this summer, Frank Philip believed he was careful to avoid coronavirus exposure. Since March, he and his wife, Heather, had both worn masks in public places and at work. They allowed few visitors to their Spenard home.

They continued to socialize at an Anchorage Moose Lodge, where they’ve been members for years, but considered it safe. There, they wore masks when they came and went, though generally not while seated. Frank, 58, said workers diligently sanitized surfaces and spaced customers apart. The lodge did nothing wrong, in his view, but he thinks it was probably there that he encountered the virus. He recalls hearing some coughing among the banter one weekend in late June.

“The thing is we were all distanced. We were all at the 6-foot distance,” Frank said. “We didn’t really feel threatened,” Heather said.

Several other members eventually tested positive for COVID-19, but Frank didn’t know that when he started to have symptoms. The son of a commercial fisherman who grew up in Kodiak, Frank said he’s not the kind of guy who normally misses work, but he lasted just a couple hours on the job as a maintenance supervisor that Monday as his coughing, exhaustion, sweating and chills increased in severity.

That Tuesday, Frank went to Alaska Regional Hospital and was tested for COVID-19 and sent home. By the following morning, before he could get the test results, Heather said her husband’s temperature surpassed 106 degrees. She encouraged him to call an ambulance, but he drove himself back to the hospital.

“And that’s the last time I saw him for a while,” Heather said.

This time, Frank was admitted immediately. His condition continued to deteriorate. Oxygen tubes went in his nose and his doctor confirmed he had COVID-19 on his second day there.

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Back home Heather, 56, who days earlier had started to recover from a surgery to fuse bones in her neck, remained quarantined and struggled to care for herself alone. She said she went five days without a shower because she couldn’t properly cover her incisions, she said. Though she could reach Frank by phone, he labored to talk.

“He’d say hello, and that’s about all he could get out,” Heather said. “And I’d just say, ‘I just want to talk to you, tell you I love you.’”

Heather could hear the din of machinery through the phone, the white noise from the negative-pressure machine and breathing equipment that surrounded her husband.

“Literally, he could just say, ‘I gotta go.’ He just didn’t have it in him,” she said.

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Though his body was too weak to do much, his mind was sharp enough to lie awake and worry. He could respond to nurses in just a word or two, but his thoughts turned to his wife and his job. He thought of his daughters in Seattle and in Arkansas and his six grandkids. Even if they were in Alaska, they wouldn’t be allowed to visit him there. He wondered if he’d survive.

“For about a week, it got real bad,” Frank said.

Moose Lodge members stepped in to help Heather. Jamie Miller, the lodge’s governor, said members dropped off meals and tended to chores at the couple’s home. People flooded Frank’s phone with supportive messages.

“Frank and his wife have been members for a long time, and they’re phenomenal people. In fact, they’re like brothers and sisters,” Miller said. “Anybody that belongs to the Moose Lodge, they’re like our family.”

On July 3, Miller was informed by the city that eight Moose Lodge members tested positive for COVID-19. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where people caught the virus, Miller said. Members sometimes spent time together away from the lodge. Still, the Moose Lodge leadership considered the risk factors some members face and decided to close that day. They have yet to reopen, he said.

“As a board, we felt it would just be best that we keep it closed right now, just so that (we) keep our numbers down and keep our members safe,” Miller said.

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Heather, home alone with her own worry, fell into a routine of calling Frank’s nurses each morning at 11 a.m., hoping for a report that indicated a slight improvement in blood oxygen saturation or a decrease in the amount of supplemental oxygen required to keep Frank going. For several days, the news was bleak.

“The updates were like ‘It’s not getting better ...,” Heather said. “It was agonizing. You just hope for those numbers.”

“I honestly felt like I was going to lose my husband,” she said.

To counter Frank’s low and dropping rate of oxygen absorption, he eventually required high flow nasal cannula treatment. That method non-invasively delivers heated and humidified oxygen to the patient’s lungs with some pressure, according to Dr. Andrea Caballero, an infectious diseases specialist who treated Frank. Doctors typically turn to high flow nasal cannula with hopes of keeping severely ill COVID-19 patients from needing a ventilator, a mechanical breathing machine that is generally considered a last-resort treatment to keep patients alive.

“He was very close (to being put on a ventilator), and he was requiring a lot of oxygen on that high-flow nasal cannula,” Caballero said.

Caballero, who has treated dozens of the sickest COVID-19 patients in Alaska, determined Frank was a candidate for two investigational treatments. Frank agreed to take remdesivir, an unapproved antiviral drug the Food and Drug Administration has allowed as a treatment for severe COVID-19 under an emergency use authorization.

Frank also infused convalescent plasma -- blood plasma collected from people who had recovered from COVID-19. The hope is that the plasma will have neutralizing antibodies to fight the infection before an “inflammatory cascade,” worsening symptoms that can cause a patient to die, Caballero said.

This month, the FDA granted an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma treatment for COVID-19. That may expand its availability in the future, Caballero said. At the time, Frank received it as a participant in a Mayo Clinic-led study. Caballero submitted information about Frank’s condition.

Frank suspects one or both of the treatments made a difference in helping him turn a corner, just before he would’ve needed a ventilator. Caballero is careful to not draw broad conclusions from her limited experience. More study is needed, but it’s reasonable for Frank to believe the treatments made a difference, she said.

“I don’t want it to sound like this is a panacea for COVID,” Caballero said. “We are encouraged by the initial results, but there are certain circumstances in which we cannot use them.”

Meanwhile, the Blood Bank of Alaska is seeking plasma donations from people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Frank’s recovery began so slightly that it was hard to see progress at first. His aches became slightly less severe and energy slowly returned. With no contact from people other than doctors and nurses, Frank spent his days watching TV, walking around his room and reading messages on his phone. A Moose Lodge online prayer callout in his name inspired hundreds of written responses.

Heather wanted to cheer the day her update included the fact that Frank sat in a chair to eat.

In all, Frank spent 18 days hospitalized, never leaving his approximately 12-by-20-foot room. When he was finally discharged, the world seemed quiet when he walked outside, finally free of the noise of the medical machinery. Once home, Frank wanted to hug his wife, but couldn’t. He was instructed to remain quarantined for an additional 10 days as a precaution.

“I didn’t go anywhere, except out in the yard,” he said.

Regaining strength and stamina remains a challenge, but it’s not the only one.

About a week after he returned home, Frank was told that he lost his job as a maintenance supervisor for a commercial and residential property company. He had spent 24 years in that job, doing plumbing, building decks, pulling carpet and more. According to Frank, his boss gave him a severance payment, but considered the liability of keeping him on the job too great. Frank said he has also coped with the effect of a neurological condition for several years.

“We understood why, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” Heather said. “And I think if he hadn’t gotten COVID, it would’ve been a much different story.”

Now, Frank said he’s taking time to recover and do physical therapy for his legs, which had gotten weak. He’s growing tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and snap peas in his yard. He looks forward to the day his nieces and nephews can walk into his house for a visit and to the day he can grill burgers and hot dogs at his neighborhood elementary school, something that had been his yearly tradition.

Neither the couple nor the doctor feel now is the time to return to normal. Dr. Caballero hopes there’s a lesson for Alaska in Frank’s experience.

“This is not just the common cold. This is not just the flu ...” Caballero said. “We need everybody to work together, because this is not going away anytime soon.”

Earlier this month, Frank prepared for a garage sale and wondered if he’d encounter people who refuse to wear a face covering. He didn’t intend to accommodate them. Though it ultimately never became a problem, the couple has noticed some discouraging attitudes regarding masks.

“If they were in my shoes and they had what I went through, they would be wearing a mask and they would preach to their family and everybody else,” Frank said. “It’s kind of ignorant on people’s part not to, especially (when) you’re getting a hundred cases a day.”

“It angers me, because they’re putting someone else’s life in their hands is how I feel,” Heather said.

Heather said she’s counting her blessings. She also believes some people might behave differently if they had experienced a scare like she had endured.

“Everything can change in a minute ... I really thought I was losing my husband, and that’s pretty powerful,” she said.

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.