I got the news on November 11. The text followed shortly after.
My husband’s fraternity brother, Ryan Senn (Louisiana Tech ’04) was hospitalized with COVID. He was sick. Really sick.
As I’m writing this, there are nearly 24 million confirmed COVID cases in the United States and nearly 400,000 people who have died from COVID. And that’s only in our country. The pandemic has impacted the entire world. But the horror of COVID doesn’t affect you until it does. I didn’t know anyone who had been hospitalized for COVID, and certainly not someone as young and purposeful as Ryan. He and his family traveled to Zambia in 2016 and 2019 to help orphaned children. He promised them he would be back to see them graduate from high school. This didn’t feel real.
Oh my gosh. Are you OK? I texted Ryan.
Three dots. And then the four words that became my mantra over the next five weeks.
COVID can’t kill Superman.
Like the mystical Phoenix rising out of the ashes, this is the story about resurgence and life. This story begins and ends with Superman fighting a battle he can only win with support from a world full of superheroes. This is a story about human beings having faith and persistence – about the power of social media. When it’s filled with love and kindness instead of hatred and divisiveness, it can literally move machines across the world. This is a story about recovery and resurrection. Resolve and fortitude. And good old-fashioned grit.
This is Ryan’s story, told by him and all of his heroes, who never gave up on their Superman.
On Halloween 2020, Ryan, 40, started feeling sick. He is an assistant supervisor at Louisiana United Methodist Children’s Home and Family Service in Ruston who was taking COVID precautions before it was mandated. In March 2020, right after the quarantine, he sent his friend a picture of himself, masked up, complete with PPE, on his way to the grocery store.
“This was really early on,” said Brad Bourgeois, “And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I mean no one was wearing all of that to the grocery store, and he said, ‘Yes I am. I don’t want to see you one day through a glass window on a ventilator.’”
But on Halloween, after an outbreak at the children’s home where eight children had tested positive for the virus, Ryan was afraid he also had it. He told his wife, Sharon, that his body hurt and she laughed it off. Sharon is an emergency room nurse at Northern Louisiana Medical Center in Ruston, a seasoned health care professional, who for the past 10 months has worked with sick COVID patients, and her husband had never even had the stomach flu, much less the real flu. So, the thought of COVID never even crossed her mind.
“I honestly blew it off and laughed at him,” Sharon said. “And when he went to the clinic and got tested, and his test came back positive, we set up a quarantine spot for him in the house, but I honestly thought he would be fine in a few days.”
Day one and two were body aches. The migraines started on days three and four, and by the sixth and seventh days, Ryan felt much better. In fact, he felt so good, he began cleaning the bathroom because he was so bored in quarantine. But on the eighth day, the respiratory issues began and by the 10th day of COVID, he needed oxygen. Sharon wanted to avoid hospitalizing her husband if possible, so she brought some oxygen to the house to try to stabilize his breathing. But by Day 11 and after talking to some of the doctors she worked with, she brought him to the emergency room at Northern Louisiana Medical Center.
“I knew right away that he was very sick,” said Dr. Aaron Marquardt, a hospitalist at NLMC. “We started him on all the meds, put him on the high-flow oxygen and put him in isolation for COVID and he wasn’t getting any better.” They put a call out for convalescent plasma, the “liquid gold” that recovered COVID patients can donate. But it never came to Ruston. Senn was hospitalized Wednesday. By Sunday afternoon, he started to rapidly decline.
“He was getting out of breath very quickly, he looked gray and he was very anxious about it,” Marquardt said. “It was a panicky situation because he had to be intubated and Sharon really was upset about that. She wanted to avoid putting him on the vent if possible. But I felt helpless for him. I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do, and that was our only option.”
Sharon knew that the vent had become symbolic for the grim reaper. In early COVID hospitalizations, those who went on the vent, often never came off, and most ended up dying.
“The day we intubated Ryan, they were scared he wouldn’t come off of it,” said Abby Puckett, a registered nurse at NLMC. “But he had such a good attitude about everything. Ryan is a very intentional person, very kind and he was always very optimistic about his progress. The very last thing I told him is that he is going to get better. And he did. Ryan is a miracle. Most definitely. He loves being alive. COVID patients have to want to continue to fight and he did.”
On Nov. 15, Ryan was given anesthesia and placed on a ventilator. The next day he was airlifted to Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport, about an hour’s drive from Ruston.
In the midst of the chaos of Ryan being transported to another hospital, behind the scenes an army was building. Shortly after he was hospitalized in Ruston, Sharon began posting about Ryan’s condition on Facebook. She updated. She asked for help, for plasma and for prayers. When he first arrived at LSU Shreveport, my husband, Luke Myers (Louisiana Tech ’00) reached out to Sharon and asked her what else he could do.
“When I talked to her, I said we were praying and spreading the word about the plasma, but did she need anything else. She was concerned because she wasn’t working and Ryan wasn’t working and they were worried about paying the house note,” Myers said. “So, I reached out to a private SAE alumni group who I had been updating about Ryan and talked to David Clark (Louisiana Tech ‘01). He is a dentist who has an office in Ruston, across from the hospital and said, ‘Hey man, what do you think about raising money for them? And he said, let’s start a GoFundMe.”
They immediately set one up for Ryan, Sharon and their two girls, Breanna and Shae, and it took off quickly. In two days, they raised nearly $20,000 and have currently raised a total of nearly $40,000. While friends and family quickly responded and donated, SAE brothers banded together to help, too.
“Efforts like this are the epitome of Brotherhood and personify what it means to put others before yourself,” said Chris Hancock, CEO of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. “It’s truly inspirational seeing people, not just SAE members, come together to help someone in need amid a global pandemic.”
Sharon continued to update Facebook daily, sometimes twice per day, asking people for specific prayers.
“Every single person who knows Ryan, loves him,” Sharon said. “I knew if I put something out there, people would respond, and it spread. I mean, wow, it spread.”
Sharon had Facebook messages from people in every state in the country and in most countries and cities outside of the United States, including South Africa (where she is from), Australia, New Zealand, London, Zambia, Afghanistan and Honduras.
Ryan was still on the vent and while he received plasma in Shreveport, he continued to fight for his life. If Ryan is Superman, then Sharon is Wonder Woman, a tenacious nurse, mom and wife with an endless amount of fortitude. And on the day before Thanksgiving, when Ryan was dying, she reached out to her brother, retired Navy Seal Commander Jon Macaskill and asked him to move mountains for her. Macaskill is a Colorado resident with a deep love for his sister and her family and 30,000 LinkedIn connections. And he used those connections to find plasma for Ryan during his first few days in Shreveport. Now, he needed to find an ECMO machine.
“Sharon called me in the middle of the night, and I assumed the worst,” said Macaskill. “I thought she was calling me to tell me Ryan was going to pass away. She was in tears and said he took a turn for the worst. He needed an ECMO machine to survive and they didn’t have one available for Ryan.”
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or ECMO is a heart-lung machine that temporarily takes over the work for the heart and lungs so they can rest and heal. Ryan’s lungs needed a rest.
“We didn’t have a backup machine so we didn’t have a machine to put him on,” said Dr. Jonathan Eaton, an Intensivist, or critical care doctor, at Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport. “You always have to have a backup machine before you place a patient on ECMO so if something goes wrong, you have a replacement.”
What Dr. Eaton didn’t know is that Macaskill tirelessly worked his contacts to find a machine, and at 1:30 a.m. MST, which is 3:30 a.m. EST, he found one. He spoke with Isaac Leider, director of Monsey, NY-based VitalOne, Air Medical Transport, who had helped get the plasma for Ryan a few days earlier. By 7 a.m. MST, a machine had been identified. Now all he needed was the funding and the flight to get the machine to Shreveport. He reached out again to his LinkedIn contacts. Steve Brignoli with Beyond SOF, Chaim Lebovits with Operation Warp Speed and in Sweden, where the ECMO machines are made, and all were excited to help. So, by 2 p.m., the day before Thanksgiving, the ECMO machine arrived in Shreveport and Ryan was placed on it.
Macaskill was more than happy to coordinate the quick response.
“Ryan always has a perpetual smile on his face. He is always looking out for others. He has a heart of gold,” Macaskill. “He is one of the best people I have ever met. He truly practices what he believes and believes what he practices. He’s my brother-in-law and the father to my two nieces. He is an incredibly important man in my life, and I was going to pull every string I could to get him whatever he needed.”
While Ryan continued to fight, Macaskill began raising money for his sister and brother-in-law through the Navy Seal Fund and in one week, raised $35,000. With the comfort of knowing bills were going to be paid, Sharon continued to fight along with Ryan. She visited him when she was allowed, held his hand, told him where he was, played Zambian music, called friends so he could hear their voices. Sharon posted daily Facebook updates, prayer emojis, heart emojis and endless words of encouragement filled her page while ECMO kept Ryan alive. Everything that meant anything was in that hospital bed and she knew every moment mattered.
“I will never take him for granted again,” Sharon said. “All those little bitty things that used to aggravate me didn’t seem to matter anymore. I would have loved to trip over a pair of his shoes that he left in the middle of the floor.”
Five days into ECMO treatment, doctors started the first round of therapeutic plasma exchange. November turned into December and a tracheotomy tube was inserted into Ryan’s throat area while the second round of TPE began. On December 2, Continuous Renal Replacement Therapy began to help with his kidneys.
Sharon kept updating, continued praying but the nurse in her faced a dark and possible reality.
“I really did stay positive this whole time, but I did have it in the back of my mind that there was a possibility that I would be planning a funeral before Christmas, and I’m so sorry that you have to hear that Ryan, but I did have that thought,” she said to me, during a three-way Facetime call with Ryan, too. He nodded solemnly, a quiet knowing that he almost died.
But the funny thing about life is that sometimes when it feels like the end is near, the light shines the brightest, and a miracle happened.
Superman began to heal.
On Dec. 7, he stopped CRRT. And on Dec. 10, nearly one month after entering the hospital, Ryan ate applesauce. Two days later, his feeding tube was removed and Ryan began texting people. The next two days were amazing. He fed himself. He left isolation. And on Dec. 15., he was removed from ECMO. It was a confusing time for Ryan.
“When I finally woke up and was coherent, my arms were tied down,” Ryan said. “And I had no idea where I was and Sharon was there explaining it so I could understand what was going on.”
Sharon adds, “Every day it was the same thing, ‘Hey you’re in the hospital. You’re intubated. You can’t talk. You came by helicopter. You’re on the vent. You have a trach. Bre is with your mom.”
Hospital officials said it’s tough for patients on ECMO to wake up in that physical state but Ryan always remained calm.
“ECMO is a last-ditch effort before death. It’s a race against time,” said Beckye Tolbert, a nurse who has spent seven years in the ICU and the last six months working with COVID patients, including Ryan. “Ryan is a miracle. When people wake up from ECMO, they are broken down. It’s a lot. They see these garden-like hoses coming out of them and they are scared. When Ryan woke up, he was tired, but he just pointed up to the ceiling and mouthed, ‘God’s got me.’ His attitude was 100 percent of why he progressed so quickly.”
Another nurse, Luisa Odilon-Cazares added, “He was my best ECMO patient ever, so well behaved. He had so much patience. He kept listening to Christian music at night. I can’t describe the amount of peace I felt every time I entered his room. I could feel God’s grace in that room every night I took care of him.”
Ryan came off the ECMO machine on December 15. He was permanently removed from the ventilator on Dec. 17, and on Dec. 18 he left Shreveport and headed to Ruston Regional Rehabilitation Hospital.
“For Ryan to be so sick and leave there smiling, was amazing,” Tolbert said. “We don’t get success stories like that with COVID. I got to hear that voice the day he left, and to see him wheeled out before Christmas truly felt like a miracle. I walked out of that room crying. It was such an honor to be involved in such a significant time in his life.”
Since then, Ryan has been working hard to gain his strength back. He took a few steps and then a few more. He has fed himself, dressed himself and said the first shower he took felt amazing. His trach is out. And on January 15, exactly 66 days after being hospitalized, Ryan went home.
“He was very determined and mentally strong,” said Nguyen Cockrell, a registered nurse at Ochsner LSU Shreveport, who was one of Ryan’s ECMO nurses. “He was so determined to get out of there. I think that attitude aided in his recovery as well. He always had this attitude like ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to get out of here.’”
While doctors say while they don’t know the long-term effects of COVID on its patients, they do know that Ryan’s attitude will continue to determine his recovery.
“We have seen neurological issues, lung issues, heart issues, and if Ryan told me that even a year from now, he was more tired and wasn’t completely back to normal, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Eaton said. “But he seems to be determined and he has so much support behind him and he has worked so hard to get to this point.”
His life is different than the pre-COVID days of long bike rides and brick workouts. His days are now filled with occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and respiratory therapy as he continues to build up his strength. He lost 60 pounds over the last two months – mostly muscle mass – and while he still has an oxygen tube in his nose, his grin is wide and his bright blue eyes sparkle as he recounts the days that knocked him down but not out. Sharon and Ryan are thankful for the prayers, the cards, the gifts, the donations, the people who cleaned their home and mowed their grass, family and friends who decorated their home for Christmas. But helping Ryan is not a chore, it’s an honor.
“He is a very healing friend in my life,” said Bourgeois. “His heart is a healing presence of love in my life that I haven’t encountered before. I am very grateful for his friendship.”
Bourgeois and my husband talk to Ryan every day, and I would bet that they’re not the only ones. This experience has reunited old friends from the Louisiana Rho Chapter of SAE.
“A lot of the fraternity members are guys I haven’t heard from in years,” Ryan said. “They have been keeping up with my story through Sharon’s Facebook page. It’s neat to rekindle those relationships.”
It’s a brotherhood that lasts forever.
“I met him during rush in 1998 when he pledged the fraternity and I am so glad he picked me to be his big brother. I have known him for 22 years,” Myers said. “He has never met a stranger and he has always given 110 percent to everyone and everything in his life and it was our turn to pay it back.”
And anyway, COVID can’t kill Superman.
Instead of donating to Ryan and Sharon’s Go Fund Me or to the Navy Seal Fund, they would love for all interested to sponsor a child through Family Legacy, a nonprofit close to their heart that provides academic, spiritual, physical and emotional support to Zambian orphans. Please visit the link below for more information. Legacy Academy – Family Legacy