Former Northwestern lineman turned doctor Ryan Padgett shakes off COVID's unrelenting grip
At Northwestern, Ryan Padgett was the one reading Shakespeare on team flights. When his roommate awoke at 7 a.m. to use the bathroom, he would notice Padgett studying index cards that contained the Latin roots of medical terms.
When the Wildcats flew to play Stanford in 1992, coach Gary Barnett noticed Padgett moving to the rear of the plane after a meal. Why?
“Going to brush my teeth,” Padgett replied.
When Mary Barnett heard that, the coach’s wife remarked: “I want (daughter) Courtney to marry him.”
Padgett arrived on campus at 17, having skipped a grade in grammar school. By the end of his true freshman season, he was a starter at the game’s most physically demanding position.
“He was a rough and tumble guy too,” Gary Barnett recalled. “An offensive lineman has to love the grind, getting down and dirty, and Ryan did.”
In March, Barnett was added to a text chain that described a dire situation — a member of the Northwestern family was on life support because of COVID-19. Barnett saw #teamryan and texted coach Pat Fitzgerald: IS THIS PAT RYAN?
No, it was Padgett, an emergency medicine specialist in Kirkland, Washington, outside Seattle. In late February, EvergreenHealth — the hospital where he works — became America’s ground zero for the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was on the night we got the confirmation a person had died,” Padgett said. “The first case. We had a little huddle amongst the ER doctors. We knew the world was going to change.”
Padgett, 45, became a doctor because of sports. As a teenager, he tore his rotator cuff pitching and injured both knees playing football. At Northwestern, he watched in awe as team physician Howard Sweeney performed a knee replacement.
His post-college health was exemplary. He took just five sick days in 21 years, and some of those were necessitated by back surgeries.
But days after treating elderly patients gasping for air, he developed headaches and muscle soreness. Then a fever of 104 and a dry cough. His oxygen levels dropped and his heart rate soared. Did he have the flu? Pneumonia? Padgett was in denial.
Connie, his fiance and now wife, insisted he return to his hospital as a patient. Within eight hours, he was on a ventilator.
But not even that could save a man strong enough and tough enough to start in the Rose Bowl.
Change of direction
Padgett planned all along to play in the 1992 season opener between Northwestern and Notre Dame. But he thought he’d be wearing gold and blue.
Padgett was a big-time recruit at Newport High School outside of Seattle. Sporting News named him one of the nation’s top 24 scholar-athletes, and Max Emfinger’s Prep Football Report rated him the nation’s fifth-best guard. He was an ideal prospect for Notre Dame, a perennial top-10 team under Lou Holtz.
Padgett recalled assistant coach Jay Hayes verbally offering him a scholarship, telling him it was a “done deal.”
Padgett canceled visits to Stanford, Washington and Colorado and trekked to South Bend, Ind., on the weekend of Jan. 20, 1992, about two weeks before signing day. By then, Hayes had left to take a job at Cal. Holtz hosted recruits at his house for a Sunday brunch, and Padgett sensed a weird vibe. Although he had verbally committed, he felt unwanted. And he was right.
“He’s essentially like: Sorry, we don’t have an offer for you,” Padgett said of Holtz. “This is pre-internet; you have no idea how this (recruiting) game is played. They got the guy ranked one ahead of me and had no qualms about dropping me at the last minute. I had done TV and radio interviews and wondered: Are they going to think I lied about this?”
A dirty deed, but Padgett would be OK. He visited Vanderbilt and met with coach Gerry DiNardo, now a Big Ten Network analyst. Then he flew to Chicago to meet with Barnett.
“So charismatic,” Padgett recalled of Barnett. “His big thing was faith, belief without evidence. We bought in, man.”
Barnett recalled getting an assist from another coach.
“We took him down to Ditka’s restaurant having no idea if he’d be there,” Barnett said. “Out of nowhere (Ditka) comes over and tells Ryan and his dad what a great place Chicago is. Ryan’s eyes are as big as saucers.”
Padgett’s memory from the encounter?
“He went in for a handshake and I didn’t get a good grip,” he said, chuckling. “It was over-the-shoulder! I didn’t get a face-to-face chance to grip this beast’s hand.”
By the way, the only nonconference opponent Padgett faced all four years was Notre Dame. The first three were losses. The fourth went a little better.
Padgett met Connie Kinsley when they were in the eighth grade. Thirty years later, he was one of five doctors on call when 96-year-old Mieko Nakao was admitted. After Padgett introduced himself to her family, one of the patient’s daughters responded: “Ryan Padgett? Did you play football at Newport High? I’m Connie Kinsley’s mother.”
“This beautiful serendipity,” Padgett said. “Her mom texts Connie, and we catch up and grab some coffee. We’ve been together the last 2 1/2 years.”
They planned a May 16th wedding.
Then the coronavirus hit.
As an emergency-medicine specialist, Padgett’s job is to process information as quickly as a quarterback facing an all-out blitz. Analyze the symptoms and keep patients alive before handing them off to a specialist.
“The joke is that we know the ocean an inch deep,” he said.
In late February, Padgett’s hospital began to see an uptick in elderly patients who had symptoms consistent with a viral pneumonia. But they were testing negative for the flu.
Padgett wore a surgical mask in most instances. But at times, following a code blue (medical emergency, such as respiratory arrest), he would sprint to the intensive care unit unprotected.
“You run into the fire and spit it out,” he said.
Following the confirmation of the nation’s first COVID-19 death, Padgett said, “it was insane. One day we got a call: We have eight sick patients coming in from a nursing home. The CDC shows up with a plug-and-play model for an emerging disease. They were equally in the dark. Is it airborne? Droplets? Do we have to wear full spacesuits with respirators and take contact precautions?
“There’s this realization: Wow, there’s this disease that’s going to take down a 200-bed nursing home, the most fragile people you can imagine. I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences in my residency — a mass murder. But nothing like this.”
In early March, Padgett felt sick. On March 12, the day after the sports world changed with the suspension of the NBA season, he was admitted to his own hospital. He became one of the first two emergency-room physicians to be hospitalized in intensive care with the coronavirus, according to the New York Times:
“Doctors gave him hydroxychloroquine, but that didn’t help. Nor did a ventilator. His oxygen levels became dire, his liver was failing, his heart function was down to 20%. Doctors induced a coma but knew they had to try something else.”
“When he got admitted, they said: Do you want to say your last goodbyes?” Connie said on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Padgett asked Connie to grab a pen and paper and gave her his passwords and the combination to his safe. And then he said he loved her.
Rob Johnson, who played alongside and roomed with Padgett at Northwestern, was receiving updates twice a day from Connie on the #teamryan text chain. And then for a time, the messages stopped.
“Radio silence,” Johnson recalled. “It was scary. Ryan has always been driven, always been a fighter. My wife is a physical therapist, and when she heard ‘ECMO machine,’ both of our hearts skipped a beat. That’s really the end of the line.”
Padgett’s medical team at EvergreenHealth transferred him to Swedish Health Services in Seattle, where cardiac specialists hooked him up to an Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, a form of life support that circulates blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream. It’s normally used on severely ill babies.
“That’s basically the highest level of support that can be offered,” said Dr. Joseph Turek, a Northwestern graduate and the chief of cardiac pediatric surgery at Duke University. “The vast majority of patients with coronavirus don’t require anything. A small percentage require some kind of supplemental oxygen. A smaller percentage require a breathing tube and mechanical ventilation. And even smaller percentage cannot be ventilated and go onto ECMO. It allows the lungs to heal.
“It’s a pretty dire thing. About half the people who go on ECMO don’t make it.”
Padgett slowly recovered, regaining awareness. His doctors believe he is the first COVID-19 patient to successfully come off an ECMO machine.
“When you have not moved in 14 days, there is a dramatic cannibalization of your (body) because of muscle atrophy,” he said. “I did not recognize myself. Thank God I was a robust, healthy guy, weighing in about 240-250. That meant a lot because older folks who go on ECMO, they kind of wither.
“I am here by the grace of two (medical) teams that just refused to pull the plug,” he said. “I’m a fortunate man. You have a little bit of the ‘Why me?’ question. But I’m glad it was me.”
Padgett is feeling well physically but is having difficulty with short-term memory and concentration. He hopes to return to the hospital in the fall, to be “shoulder to shoulder” with colleagues as they treat patients during an inevitable second wave.
“Cognitively I’m nervous, I’ll be honest, Padgett said. “With what I do for a living, you have to be razor sharp. I hope to get back.”
Three support teams
The May 16 wedding was to take place at Roche Harbor, a delightful seaside resort located on Washington’s San Juan Island.
And then, as Padgett put it, the world changed.
“You know what? “You learn that all the pretense doesn’t matter anymore,” Padgett said. “We have a friend who notarized our marriage application. We looked at the weather, saw a nice day was coming up and put together a wedding on the bow of our boat.”
They were married April 19. Connie wore a white dress. Ryan wore a bowtie decorated with mini-anchors. The boat is named "CATS-N-DAWGS." The "N" is purple for Northwestern. The "W" is purple for the University of Washington Huskies, Padgett’s medical school.
Padgett mentioned that he survived by the grace of two teams. Or maybe three.
“The outreach from the Northwestern family has been absolutely incredible,” he said.
Padgett mentioned getting support from a host of Rose Bowl teammates such as Johnson, Fitzgerald, Steve Schnur, Justin Chabot and Darren Drexler plus former coaches, athletic director Jim Phillips and non-football friends.
“The most heartwarming outreach and embrace,” he said. “These people are very important to me. My football boys are my brothers from the time we showed up on campus in the summer of ‘92.”
Barnett, who persuaded Padgett to come to Northwestern and made him a starter by the end of his freshman season, said of Padgett’s amazing tale: “Who in the world is surprised that Ryan Padgett would, one, go in there, and two, recover the way he has? He has conducted his whole life that way.”
Padgett, meanwhile, is eager to stop making headlines. He turned down interview requests from MSNBC, CNN and Dr. Mehmet Oz.
“I’m an offensive lineman,” Padgett said. “I like the anonymity.”
One of his favorite moments as a college football player came in December 1995. Running back Darnell Autry was in New York for the presentation of the Heisman Trophy, which went to Eddie George. Padgett was with his family in Washington, watching it on TV.
“That was perfect,” he said. “I’ll do the heavy lifting. Someone else can have the face time.”