Beth Stiger may quite possibly be the most hopeful, inspiring and unlikely story of defeating coronavirus in the state of Oklahoma.
At one point, Beth’s husband Kris was told by doctors that his wife had a 10% chance to live.
In basketball terms, that’s precisely Steven Adams’ 3-point shooting percentage for his career. Most of those attempts have been buzzer beating 50 foot prayers. How would you like your life to depend on whether or not Steven Adams hits a half court heave?
Beth is many things. She is a wife. She is the mother of four children. She is a home health care worker. She is an Oklahoman, born and raised. She is an avid Thunder fan and season ticket holder.
And now, against all odds, she is a COVID-19 survivor.
A vulnerable defense
Over the past several months, every person on the planet has become a self-taught coronavirus pundit to varying degrees. Here’s what we all accept as fact: those most in danger are the elderly and the immunocompromised.
Beth is only 37 years old. But she is the living, breathing textbook example of immunocompromised.
Beth was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2009. Two years later, she learned she had lupus, a long-term autoimmune disease. Beth has asthma, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea. She requires four different medications to suppress her immune system, but those immunosuppressants made COVID even more dangerous for her body. Basically, all the things that could make a person susceptible to COVID, Beth has in spades.
Of all Oklahomans aged 40 or under, she was one of the people most in dire need of avoiding exposure to coronavirus. So how did it happen?
“A co-worker went on a trip the weekend of March 6. The following Friday the 13th, he and I were in my office in close proximity. The following Monday he found out four of the guys on the trip tested positive for COVID. He was tested and came back positive,” Beth breaks down the timeline. “The CDC called me on March 17 and advised because we had worked in close proximity, I needed to quarantine. I was officially swabbed on March 21. The test came back positive on Monday, March the 23rd.”
Exactly 10 days after Beth was exposed, she discovered she had contracted COVID.
Fighting to the brink
Her symptoms included all the usual suspects we’ve read about on Twitter and Facebook: fever, chills, headache, shortness of breath, no sense of taste or smell, and coughing.
“The most pain I was in was the two days before I went to the [Mercy Hospital] emergency room. I could not control the fever and chills with meds,” Beth said of her temperature, which reached 105°. “I was physically shaking. I had a headache and was vomiting from the pain. I could not catch my breath.”
Beth is a fighter, an optimist and a woman of faith. That mental makeup is the reason she always sticks around until the final buzzer, even when her beloved Thunder are on the wrong end of a double digit ball game.
“Even when I went to the ER, it did not even cross my mind that I might not survive.”
But when this virus sinks its ugly, parasitic teeth into a compromised person’s weakened system, even the strongest of mind, heart and soul can succumb to the fragility of their mortal body.
“The night of the 27th, the doctors came in my room and told me they were going to intubate me and I needed to sign a paper. I panicked. I did not want to be intubated. I was all alone in the hospital, and I begged them to find another way. The two nurses explained there was no other way. I asked to speak to the doctor. I asked a bunch of logistics questions and agreed to the intubation. At that point, I was incredibly fearful that I was going to die.”
Critical and isolated
Beth lost the next two weeks of her life. She was unconscious and does not remember a single second of time from the moment they intubated her on March 27 until the doctors began removing her tubes on April 9. Her husband Kris remembers every detail.
On April 1, Beth was being supported 100% by a ventilator. The doctors were forced to turn her on to her stomach while intubated, which is usually a medical no-no. But it was the only option to get Beth’s O2 saturation levels up. Kris was advised that if things were left as is, Beth had a 10% chance of survival. But if he agreed to have Beth moved to Hillcrest Hospital in Tulsa, their ECMO machine would raise her chance of survival up to 50-60%.
Beth, unconscious and in critical condition, was transported 107 miles from Oklahoma City to Tulsa so that she would have heads or tails odds of living.
Once admitted to the Hillcrest ICU, Beth’s life became dependent on their ECMO machine, which pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body. Beth’s blood flowed through tubing to an artificial lung in the machine that added oxygen and took out carbon dioxide. Then the blood was warmed to body temperature and pumped back into her body.
Meanwhile, neither Kris nor any of their children, Allisyn (18), Micaelyn (8), Mitzi (6), and Jaxson (4), had seen Beth since she stepped foot into the first hospital. COVID patients are isolated from their family. The lack of being surrounded by loved ones is one of the tragic side effects of hospitalization from this virus. So while Beth had no idea how serious her battle for her life was, Kris and the kids could only stay home and hope. The family’s new normal involved anxiously awaiting Dr. Ghuloom’s twice daily phone calls updating them on health of the wife and mom they loved.
Over the next nine days, Beth’s fighting instinct kicked into high gear. Each phone call sounded a little more promising than the last. Each day there seemed to be a little more hope.
On April 9th, Beth regained consciousness.
“I had lost over two weeks of my life. I spent a lot of those first few days in tears,” Beth says. Her singular focus when she first woke up? “I just wanted to be in Kris’s arms and hold my babies and hug my family.”
That still wasn’t an option. She had come a long way, yet she was still testing positive and remained isolated.
But a phone call to her husband and 4 year old son had her feeling, well, positive.
“Once I got to talk to Kris and see Jaxson on Facetime, I felt like I was going to get my life back.”
Little Jaxson proved to be the last bit of medicine her body needed. Finally, after a month of battling COVID, Beth received a negative test.
“Oh my goodness! I was so thankful for that first negative,” Beth recalls. “I called everyone so excited. I then listened to some praise and worship music and cried happy tears and prayed and thanked God for his mercy and grace.”
From hydroxychloroquine to remdesivir to multiple vaccine trials, everyone in the free world is trying to figure out what can treat or cure the coronavirus. But what does someone who defeated the illness think?
“I believe ultimately the prayers of friends and family and the mercy of God saved me. I believe God used Dr. Ghuloom and ECMO to save my life,” Beth said. “He told me every day that I was a miracle and took amazing care of me. He often reminded me that it was not just him, but the nurses, pulmonology doctors, infectious disease doctors, and respiratory therapists. It was a team effort.”
During quarantine, we’ve heard far too many stories of employers taking advantage of their workers or people losing their jobs. So it’s refreshing to hear when a company goes above and beyond to help their workers. Beth was fortunate that while she was fighting to live, she was continuing to make a living.
Jane Doss, the owner of Beth’s employer Preferred Pediatrics for the last 14 years, talked Kris and Beth’s sister Laura through ECMO. They continued Beth’s payroll not only through her hospitalization, but through her recovery as well. And Preferred provided daily meals to Kris, the kids, and once she was back home, to Beth.
And how about that Stiger family reunion? How did it feel to finally see her husband and kids again after over a month of fighting a lonely battle of life and death?
“Hugging Kris for the first time felt like Christmas morning times 1,000. All I had wanted for the last 11 days I was awake was to feel the safety and love in his touch. I didn’t want to let go. Seeing the kids for the first time was amazing. We had some great big hugs. Jaxson would not go to bed that night until I promised I wasn’t going anywhere and that I would be at the house when he woke up in the morning. Mitzi kept coming up and kissing my cheek and telling me that I was the best mom ever.”
Now that Beth has her life back, she says she wants to live her life fully. That includes her favorite form of entertainment: watching her Oklahoma City Thunder.
“This team has shown up to play. We didn’t really expect much going into the season, but they turned it on and played some great team basketball,” Beth says, shifting into fan mode seamlessly. “I don’t think we will be competing for a championship this year, but I think we have earned our seat at the playoff table.”
Then again, remember when Steven Adams hit that half court heave against the Pelicans earlier this season? Sometimes a 1 in 10 prayer is answered.
There is always hope.
Beth Stiger is living proof.