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A first for test pilot

Retired helicopter pilot finds himself in a Madigan COVID test

Ken Evans sits in front of a bank of monitors in the Virtual Critical Care Center at Madigan Army Medical Center on JBLM to chat with his dad, retired Army helicopter test pilot Robert Evans. Photo by Kirstin Grace-Simons, U.S. Army photo.

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Retired Army helicopter test pilot Robert "Gordon" Evans can describe the inner workings of the Army's helicopter fleet from a Cobra to a 58-Delta or a Chinook, a Huey or an Apache. He can tell in detail the difference between the heat of Fort Polk, La., versus Fort Bragg, N.C., versus Vietnam. He can even offer insight into the proper cooking of a rattlesnake. But, he is hard-pressed to find a good way to explain COVID-19.

"As far as COVID-19, it'll just knock the heck out of ya," said Evans. "I didn't feel really bad except I couldn't breathe; that was the biggest thing. I was sucking air in but it wasn't doing any good. That's why I had the wife bring me in."

His stay in the COVID-19 unit of Madigan Army Medical Center, on Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), fashioned for isolation and heightened monitoring of patients with COVID-19 lasted fewer than 10 days. Yet, in that time, Evans managed to find himself in the tester's seat once again.

As one of a handful of military treatment facilities testing the efficacy and safety of the drug Remdesivir for treating COVID-19, Evans was asked if he wanted to enroll in a research trial. He said yes and helped test out the feasibility of virtual consenting.

Madigan cut the ribbon on its Virtual Critical Care Center in 2018 and it has played in numerous exercises, enabled remote consulting with other facilities and offered an expert set of eyes to aid the Intensive Care Unit in its normal operations. But, it has not seen activity like it has in these past few weeks with operations curtailed and altered in deference to COVID-19.

Janell Cain, a clinical research coordinator with the Infectious Disease Clinical Research Program, and Lt. Col. Christopher Colombo, the director Virtual Health and Telecritical Care walked Evans through the informed consent process from the VCCC. From their perch in the Center, they described the procedures and potential side effects over webcam as Lydia Kaplan, a nurse in the ICU, assisted Evans in his room with the paperwork.

Colombo explained the value of doing this remotely, saying, "We were able to perform an informed consent without expending PPE, or exposing anyone to the patient unnecessarily."

Kaplan was already engaged in providing care to Evans, but Cain and Colombo had no reason to be in his room otherwise. With Kaplan's help, they exchanged information and answered questions with everyone able to see and hear one another clearly.

Though he did not know it, Evans wasn't done testing the technology yet.

As they were preparing the enrollment paperwork for the trial, Colombo ran into another Mr. Evans in the ICU- Robert's son, Ken.

There to drop off his dad's phone, charger and some cherished Louis L'Amour reading material, Ken figured he would just wave at his dad through the room's window.

"I think we can do better than that," offered Colombo.

He took Evans, to the VCCC to have a virtual visit with his dad.

The two talked across those cameras and monitors, each getting a good view of one another.

"We had a short conversation," said Evans.

In addition to his son, who has two children and three stepchildren, the elder Evans also has a daughter who has three children. Evans is a great grandfather twice over, with a third great grandchild on the way.

Evans has survived being a test pilot, a tour in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, brain surgery at the old Madigan facility, and now COVID-19.

"My breath is not as good as it used to be," he said recently.

Though he quit seven years ago, Evans smoked for better than 50 years. This garnered him a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, diagnosis as he was battling COVID-19.

"Until I got to COVID-19, I didn't have breathing problems that I do have. But now, walking up and down the stairs. I still get a little shorter breath. So, it's getting better, but it's not great," noted Evans.

Despite this additional breathing challenge, his condition never warranted time on a ventilator. But, the question, at this point, for Evans is- what now?

It has been thought that once a person is infected with COVID-19, their body will develop immunity and be resistant to it in the future.

"Well, now we've got the sailors that are getting it a second time. So, am I immune to it or not?" asked Evans.

The sailors he references are crew members of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt which saw over 1,000 of its 4,800-member crew test positive for COVID-19 in March. After two months docked in Guam to deal with the illness, the U.S. Navy confirmed that up to 14 sailors had tested positive again after testing negative following their recovery from the disease, for a May 16 story in the Navy Times.

Originally from Southern California, Evans retired from the Army as the chief test pilot for JBLM when it was still known as Fort Lewis.

He is curious to see a few things now - whether he got the real drug or the placebo from the trial he was involved in, if he is immune to COVID-19 and on the most positive note, a new great grandbaby.

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