In the first few weeks of the pandemic, before coronavirus cases devastated hospitals in New York and soared in other states, Dr. Rebecca Shadowen a question to her friends on Facebook.
“If you could save another person’s life without harming your own, would you?” Shadowen, an infectious disease specialist in Kentucky, released on March 13th.
From the start, the doctor advocated social distancing, hand washing, and wearing masks, and she hoped her Bowling Green community could become a role model for the rest of her state, where residents argue over stay-at-home assignments and they challenge Kentucky’s mask mandate in court.
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In May, Shadowen fell ill while offering her expertise as a member of the Bowling Green-Warren County’s coronavirus working group. At first she complained of being tired, but the night she was taken to the hospital she woke up and said she was short of breath, her husband David said.
She moved between local hospitals for the next four months, and was temporarily placed on a ventilator and in intensive care. During the weeks of regaining her strength, she was clear enough to continue working from her hospital bed and sharing what she knew about a virus that was devastating her body in unexpected ways.
“There have been several times that she thought she was turning the corner and we thought she was on the way to recovery,” said David Shadowen, who is also a doctor.
After dealing with complications from the virus, such as abdominal bleeding and weakened lungs, Shadowen died on September 11, surrounded by her husband and two grown children. She was 62 years old.
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David and Rebecca Shadowen were college favorites at Western Kentucky University, and together they enrolled at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Shadowen specialized in infectious diseases such as HIV / AIDS and Lyme disease and, this year, on Covid-19.
She worked at the Bowling Green Medical Center, where colleagues relied on her more than three decades of medical knowledge, and she was happy to help medical students and local residents.
Even after getting sick, she continued the county’s coronavirus working group, pushing for the need for a local mask ordinance. Sometimes when she learned something particularly important, she would send out a group text in the middle of the night. She believed that simply wearing a mask could stop the disease from spreading.
“She’d say, ‘Folks, this is not politics. This is science,'” said Dennis Chaney, the medical center vice president for ancillary services. “I’ve heard her say so many times.”
After her death, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear hailed Shadowen as a “frontline hero”.
David Shadowen believes his wife signed Covid-19 the way he and their daughter Kathryn contracted: from a housekeeper who infected his elderly mother.
But the Shadowens’ son, Jesse, did not test positive for the virus. David Shadowen said he and his daughter had mild symptoms of Covid-19, which made Shadowen’s debilitating struggle all the more frustrating.
Before she got sick, Shadowen went empty to her church during the pandemic and prayed in a bank. She was in conflict and faced all risks and responsibilities as a health care worker, said Adam Shourds, senior pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church.
“She said, ‘We all have a responsibility,'” Shourds recalled. “‘My role is important, but not more important than that of others.'”
He said Shadowen texted him the day she was supposed to be plugged into a ventilator: “I’m going on ventilation today. This is not the end.”
She was not bitter, she said, and over the past few months has understood everything she could know about the corona virus.
“She fought the virus harder than anyone because she knew how,” Shourds said.
During Shadowen’s visit and memorial service this week, former patients and patient family members came up to David Shadowen and his children.
Many told them the same thing, “‘I live today because she saved my life’ or ‘She saved my mother’s life,'” said David Shadowen.
He described her as the glue that kept the household together, working long shifts, running the finances, preparing meals, and commuting the kids between soccer practice and ballet without breaking a sweat.
She embodied so much, said David Shadowen: a person of faith, a mother, a woman and a doctor.
Her daughter Kathryn, 23, said there were countless times when they were out in public that someone stopped her mother to thank her for what she had done.
“It was really powerful to be the child of someone who saved people,” she said. “Many children see their parents as heroes. Indeed, they were mine.”
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