The Wives Across the Hall

In Brittany Strickland, Lola Shreveport, Victoria Arnold by Lola Magazine

The unexpected friendship bonded on the faith of two families and their incredible battle against Covid-19

The unexpected friendship bonded on the faith of two families and their incredible battle against Covid-19

Written By Victoria Arnold • Studio Photos By Brittany Strickland

Slow mechanical beeps, small and steady gushes of air, and the whirling roar of helicopter rotors are sounds that are all too familiar to Sharon Senn. For Sharon, all of these sounds reflect her experience in the ICU at Louisiana State University Hospital in Shreveport while awaiting for updates from doctors regarding the worsening condition of her husband, Ryan.

Slow mechanical beeps, small and steady gushes of air, and the whirling roar of helicopter rotors are sounds that are all too familiar to Sharon Senn. For Sharon, all of these sounds reflect her experience in the ICU at Louisiana State University Hospital in Shreveport while awaiting for updates from doctors regarding the worsening condition of her husband, Ryan. 

Slow mechanical beeps, small and steady gushes of air, and the whirling roar of helicopter rotors are sounds that are all too familiar to Sharon Senn. For Sharon, all of these sounds reflect her experience in the ICU at Louisiana State University Hospital in Shreveport while awaiting for updates from doctors regarding the worsening condition of her husband, Ryan.

Originally from Capetown, South Africa, Sharon and her family moved to the United States in 1984, when she was just 12 years old. Though the move resulted in quite a bit of culture shock at first, Sharon integrated into life in Ruston, eventually finding a passion for the medical field and becoming a nurse for various hospitals around northern Louisiana.

It was her job as a nurse at the Northern Louisiana Medical Center that introduced her to her favorite person and future husband, Ryan Senn. She first encountered him while he was working as a Nurse Tech in the E.R. “We were really good friends at the time,” Sharon recalled. “I always thought he was a sweetheart. He was just precious to me, and he just had the sweetest, kindest smile.”

Ryan and Sharon Senn

Eventually, the pair tied the knot in 2008. The couple had Shae, Sharon’s then 5-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and also welcomed a second child named Bre in 2009. Time passed, and life went on as usual. At least until the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic rocked the United States in January of 2020.

04 The Senn family in the summer of 2020

The Senn family in the summer of 2020

“It was scary,” Senn described. Working as a nurse in Ruston, Senn encountered the virus throughout the beginning of the pandemic and witnessed the impact first-hand. “CDC guidelines were changing every day — it was crazy,” Sharon said. From interacting with sick patients to aiding hospital staff, Sharon was often, yet safely exposed to the damaging aftermath of the virus. For the meantime, COVID seemed as if it could be at least held back at an arm’s length from her own family.

Though she had experienced COVID everyday as a nurse, the devastating effects of the virus didn’t hit home until Friday, October 30. “Ryan works with kids, and I remember him coming home and telling me that he was exposed to a child who tested positive for COVID earlier that day,” Sharon said.

Initially, the news was taken lightly. “The first thing that I did was laugh it off,” said Sharon. “I didn’t think it was going to be bad. I just told him that everything would be alright, and to just take a shower and rinse off and he would be fine.” Later on that weekend, on Sunday November, Ryan officially tested positive for COVID.

The Senn family during a mission trip to Zambia with a few of the children they came to love

The Senn family during a mission trip to Zambia with a few of the children they came to love.

Without any serious record of illness or any pre-existing conditions, Sharon only expected Ryan to be sick for a handful of days. The first two days consisted of body aches, followed by migraines on days three and four. Overall, Ryan primarily experienced flu-like symptoms, but nothing drastic.

Though he was ill enough to be temporarily separated from the rest of the family, Ryan wasn’t quite sick enough to warrant a permanent trip to the hospital for treatment. Sharon illustrates: “During the first couple of days when he was sick, we kept him in the back of the house. We hooked up a microwave in the back for him so he could stay separated from the girls and me up front.”

By day 8, Ryan’s health had significantly improved, and it seemed as if an easy, smooth recovery would shortly follow. “He even started cleaning his bathroom one day because he got bored,” Sharon said.

Unfortunately, 10 days after his confirmed diagnosis, Ryan began to struggle — an unexpected and nerve-wracking turn for the family. Using her medical knowledge, Sharon spun into action, keeping a close eye on Ryan’s oxygen saturation levels, which began to plummet.

After several calls to friends, Sharon was able to contact the oxygen supplier and had a supply of oxygen delivered to the Senn family home – miraculously — within the hour. However, even on a high flow of oxygen, Sharon was alarmed to discover that Ryan still had trouble retaining oxygen saturation — even while on 5-6 liters of it.

“That day, I knew I had to take him to the emergency room,” she remembered. “That was probably the worst day of my life. I just had to leave him there. I had seen enough people get sick…I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to see him again.”

Upon his arrival at the Northern Louisiana Medical Center later on November 11, there was one phrase that Ryan stated that quickly became a mantra for many following his story: “COVID can’t kill Superman.”

From the start, Ryan faced several obstacles regarding his spiraling physical state. He was immediately placed on 100% high-flow oxygen in the ICU, and doctors prescribed several medicines, including an antiviral drug to combat the virus. Ryan’s doctors advised Sharon that he would need access to convalescent plasma, otherwise referred to as “liquid gold.” Convalescent plasma — blood collected from patients who have recovered from COVID — has been proven to significantly aid in the healing of those currently infected. “The plasma was in high demand and there wasn’t much out there,” Sharon explained.

Over the course of a few days, Ryan’s health seriously began to decline. With no plasma in sight, the doctors delivered more news to Sharon that was another heavy blow: Ryan would need to be placed on a ventilator.

For Sharon, the ventilator was a death sentence. As a medical professional, after seeing so many patients become too dependent on a ventilator to survive after its removal, she was afraid that the machine designed to help save Ryan would ultimately kill him.

However, though Sharon’s fear was growing, she refused to let it paralyze her. As Ryan’s state began to grow more desperate, she reached out to family, friends, and loved ones, as well as her online community on Facebook. She began to thoroughly share Ryan’s every health update, as well as marketing Ryan’s specific needs and specific prayer requests.

In the meantime, Sharon’s desperate search for plasma compelled her to reach out to her brother and retired Navy Seal Commander, Jon Macaskill. After Macaskill implored peers on LinkedIn and attempted to spread the word about Ryan’s need for plasma.

Ryan Senn being airlifted to Ochsner Shreveport

Meanwhile, after carefully placing Ryan on the ventilator on the morning of November 16, Sharon received a call from his nurse explaining that Ryan’s CO2 levels were critical, and he needed to go to LSUS for further treatment.

“Friends of ours actually arranged for us to be placed on the medical insurance that would cover a helicopter ride, and Ryan was life-aired on to LSUS,” Sharon stated. “As soon as he arrived at LSUS, Ryan’s cousin graciously opened up her home to us in Shreveport, Ryan’s mother, the girls, and I stayed there while he was in the hospital.”

 Upon his arrival to LSUS, Sharon received some good news in the midst of the chaos: they had found convalescent plasma for Ryan. She recalled: “The next thing I know I’m getting a phone call from the president of LifeShare Blood Centers, Chad Douglas.” When Sharon visited Ryan the following day, there was a bag of plasma hanging by his bed, which, thanks to the team effort from many kind-hearted individuals, he received in less than 24 hours.

Throughout the first 9 days of his residence at LSUS, Ryan’s health fluctuated, but began to significantly decline. During this time, he actually extubated himself from his ventilator and came very close to dying,” said Sharon. On November 25, Sharon received a phone call from the doctor. “He told me that he needed an ECMO machine, and that if he didn’t get put on a machine, he wasn’t going to make it through the day,” she said.

Hanging up the phone, the search and prayers for finding an ECMO machine, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, began. At 2 a.m., Sharon contacted her brother once again, and the pair began reaching out to individuals across the internet for any aid in finding an accessible machine.

Ryan Senn on the ecmo machine

The next morning, Sharon woke up to the seemingly impossible unfolding before her very eyes. “I just laid there by Bre in our bed, and I started getting phone calls from people everywhere. The hospital even called me and told me that they had received a call from Sweden, where the company who manufactures the machines are located.”

Miraculously, an available machine was found in New Jersey. Isaac Leider, owner of VitalOne, an emergency medical transport company, flew the machine down to LSUS on a LearJet. This tremendous feat was the result of another team effort arranged by the Navy SEALs Fund and the Foundation’s CEO Rachel Dzieran. “They raised the money to fly the machine all the way from New Jersey to Shreveport,” Sharon stated. It seemed as if all of the necessary pieces to save Ryan had begun to fall into place.

Ryan remained on ECMO for 18 days. However, his time on ECMO proved to be difficult as well, as he went into renal failure and had to receive dialysis. Sharon continued to update family and friends about Ryan’s medical journey, and she received a call from a friend all the way from Zambia. “Ryan and I have been on two mission trips to Zambia, and we’re still in contact with his partner, Joshua,” she explained. “He called me and we prayed over the phone for at least 30 minutes in the ICU waiting room.” Joshua, Sharon’s brother, her friends, loved ones, and all of the “friends of friends” developed a community that surrounded the couple when they needed it most.

Little to her knowledge, Sharon still had one friend left to meet that would be one of her greatest sources of encouragement throughout Ryan’s sickness. Sharon met Kylie Biddy on December 1, the same day that Ryan had his trach put in.

The Biddy Family the day of Abigail Biddy’s adoption

“I had a friend that’s also originally from Louisiana tell me about Ryan’s battle with COVID,” Kylie Biddy, 36-year-old, Louisiana-born, Texas resident recalled. Kylie’s own husband, Blake, only 35 at the time, was also hospitalized at LSUS fighting for his life just a few feet across the hall from Ryan’s hospital room. “I had seen Sharon coming in and out of Ryan’s hospital room, and we would exchange words and prayers for both Ryan and Blake.”

Kylie Biddy and her husband Blake have been happily married for the past seven years. After meeting him at a local restaurant that she was working at, she was immediately attracted to him. She recalled: “I actually already knew his brother’s wife, and they were having a family meal at the restaurant when I first saw him. I was playing on a co-ed softball team at the time, and I played against his youngest brother who was on the opposing team!”

The next day after the game, Blake and his younger brother re-visited the restaurant so Blake could meet Kylie. Not long after, Blake contacted her to ask her out. “On our first date I actually had a pretty bad cold,” she said, “and he brought me all kinds of cough drops and medicine — he was so sweet.” However, according to Kylie, there was one moment in particular where she knew for sure Blake was “the one.” “We both have a huge passion for LSU football, and he was given tickets to an LSU game,” Kylie explained, smiling. “We traveled to the game and on the way there we had SO much fun, and I just thought — ‘this is the kind of guy I want to marry.’”

Fortunately, she did. Fast forward seven years, and the family found themselves living a peaceful life on their ranch in Texas. “We have four kids now,” said Kylie. “Blake’s 16-year-old son Keegan, our 7-year -old adopted daughter Ana Grace, 5-year-old son Gauge, and 2-year-old adopted daughter Abigail. God put the call for adoption in our hearts.” she said.

Among Kylie’s numerous reasons why she loves Blake, there’s one thing in particular that makes her fall in love with him all over again. “One thing we always do in our home is turn on Alexa and we’ll two-step in the kitchen,” she said.

As 2020 began and COVID snuck its way into the United States, Kylie and Blake’s original thought was that it wasn’t as serious as many thought it would be. “I have many family members in the medical field, my mom is actually a nurse,” said Kylie. “You know, she of course advised us to wash our hands, wear our masks, and just be careful overall.”

Blake with his son Keegan while on ECMO

The stay-at-home order and the aftermath of it was hard on the family. Kylie was surprised to discover that she was expecting their second biological child, but the couple unfortunately lost the baby shortly after. “It was really hard,” she described. On top of that, the family also sold their home and built another one — all during the middle of the pandemic. The family had only been in their home for about 2 weeks, boxes still left unpacked, when Blake came home from work on November 6th feeling unwell.

Though Blake felt fine at work that day, it was on the evening commute home when he slowly began to feel sick. “We actually had friends coming over for dinner that night and he felt so bad that he just showered and laid on the couch, which isn’t like him,” Kylie stated. After realizing that Blake had a fever, Kylie recalled: “He just looked at me and said ‘…I just don’t feel right.’”

Later that night, Blake began exhibiting serious symptoms of COVID. From weakness, to body aches, to shortness of breath. After quickly arriving at Hospitality Medical Center in Longview, Texas, medical staff gave him a banana bag, along with several medicines and vitamins to help boost his immune system. “We went home with 13 prescriptions,” she said. After returning home and starting home treatment, however, Blake’s health began to take a turn for the worse.

“I brought him back to the Hospitality E.R. after two days, and they advised us to send him to an overnight monitoring facility,” Kylie recalled. Here, Blake received an additional dosage of vitamins as well as another banana bag to help him regain his strength. “After that, we went home for two days again, and he actually started feeling better. He worked for a little bit on the computer, but then afterwards he felt really drained,” said Kylie.

Seeing Blake’s physical health decline was difficult for Kylie because, like Ryan Senn, he had no prior health issues or medical conditions. She remembers: “Throughout the entire time we’ve been married, I’ve only seen Blake sick once, and it was the stomach bug.”

Blake and family

Once Blake’s oxygen levels reached 78%, Kylie knew Blake needed emergency medical attention. After revisiting the Hospitality Medical Center again, Blake was sent to Regional Medical Center on November 14 in Longview, Texas, and was moved to the ICU unit within a couple of hours.

Like Ryan, Blake needed convalescent plasma, which thankfully came after several perilous hours of waiting. After remaining there for four days, and exhausting all of the medical options to help heal Blake, Kylie received what she described as one of the worst phone calls of her life.

“The nurse practitioner said: ‘He’s gonna be intubated and placed on a ventilator, I need you to collect yourself, and put your kids on FaceTime because he is panicking’.” Tearfully, Kylie explained: “It was hard, you know. It was good for him to see the kids, but it was hard for the kids to see him that way.”

According to Kylie, the nurse then explained that they needed to discuss “the hard thing.” She informed Kylie that Blake needed a machine called ECMO. “I asked her what the side effects of the ECMO machine are, and she just stated: ‘the side effect of not getting treatment from this machine is that he’s going to die’.”

After multiple calls to hospitals and doctors for an available bed and machine, the search grew grim until they discovered an availability at LSUS.

Blake was airlifted to LSUS on November 18, and was placed on ECMO on November 20. During his time on ECMO, Kylie described that there were “okay days, bad days, and awful days.” Minute to minute, there was no telling what all could happen, and everything almost did happen. Kylie explained: “They had to temporarily stop his heart to get it back at a regular beat, he underwent an ECMO exchange three different times — his backup battery even failing at one point, and his ventilator even failed suddenly while I was still in the room.”

Kylie and Blake the day before Blake was released

But the extent of Blake’s medical conundrums didn’t end there. Though ECMO is designed to help heal a person’s lungs, it can also cause a severe amount of stress on other vital organs — like the heart. “Blake actually had right-sided heart failure while on ECMO,” stated Kylie. In addition, Blake also had a staggering tower of 11 different IVs that he was connected to.

“To see the strongest guy you know be the sickest guy you know…it’s heart-wrenching,” Kylie reflected. “But I cannot say enough words about Blake’s medical staff. They were phenomenal.”

One thing that got both Kylie and Sharon through the hardest days is the outstanding community that encouraged, prayed for, and supported them. From receiving groceries to feed their families, friends mowing their lawns, family offering to watch their children, receiving encouraging texts and phone calls, as well as the overwhelming online presence to spread the word and support Ryan and Blake — and the generosity didn’t stop there. “We can’t even begin to keep up with all of the various acts of kindness and compassion we have received,” said Kylie.

Sharon described one significant act of kindness from loved ones during the Christmas holidays. “We usually decorate our house for Christmas, but we weren’t able to this year with Ryan being so sick. But one day we came home from the hospital and our house was completely lit up,” she recalled. “The MICU staff even surprised the kids with a basket full of Christmas presents! They treated us like their own family, and we will forever be grateful to them.” Kylie and Blake’s children also got a special Christmas surprise which an effort put together by the community of Jefferson, where Blake is originally from. “We received gift cards, and Santa and Mrs. Claus even came to our home!”

For the Senn family, that wasn’t the only overwhelming act of kindness they were given. A friend of the couple started a Go-Fund-Me for Ryan, and that’s how the family was still able to pay bills while Ryan was in the hospital and Sharon was unable to work.

Likewise, when Blake’s 36th birthday occurred while he was hospitalized, Kylie recalled, “I bought decorations and Blake’s wonderful night nurse Natalie helped decorate his room with banisters and balloons for him and we had his birthday party at the hospital.” The Biddy family even received numerous donations of financial support as well. “I came home one day and literally someone had sent about $500 anonymously. And we just want to say thank you and we love you to whoever did that for us,” she said.

Sharon and Kylie also made sure to give back to the community that supported them, too. “People wanted to help us in the beginning, and we weren’t sure at first how to receive the overflowing amount of help. We as a family are doers, and we really wanted to give back to the nurses and medical staff,” Kylie said. Thus, ”Biddy Tribe,” an idea created between Kylie, Kylie’s mother Paula, and Jessie, Kylie’s close friend, was born. The Tribe began raising money, and Kylie and Jessie began planning the meals for Blake’s medical team. “Jessie and my mom have been my rock — the whole Biddy Tribe has been my rock,” Kylie stated. “Our friends have held it down. We are so blessed.”

The movement even inspired local restaurants to donate meals to the hospital floor where Blake was located, and tumblers were also made in support of Blake and were given to the medical staff at each facility he resided.

In total, Blake visited six different facilities in his fight with COVID. According to his needs, Blake bounced from Hospitality E.R., Hospitality’s overnight monitoring facility, Regional Medical Center, LSU Medical Center, PAM of Shreveport, and then Willis-Knighton Rehab Facility. Kylie reflected: “At each facility they treated him like family and royalty. They treated him so well, and I think it really prepared him for his transition to come home.”

Though the community surrounding the two men and their families gave Sharon and Kylie encouragement and support, both women agree that it was their Christian faith that gave them something to cling to when all hope felt lost. “God saved him so many times,” Kylie reflected, tearfully. Likewise, Sharon also voiced: “Literally, God is the only thing that got us through this, and Ryan and I both knew that this was going to give God the glory–it was horrible–but God was gonna see us through it.”

Perhaps the sweetest community that helped the two families endure is the quickly formed yet deeply rooted friendship between Sharon and Kylie. From long nights in hospital waiting rooms, to encouraging texts and calls, to crying and praying with one another in the hallway, the women’s friendship blossomed in the midst of one of the darkest moments of their lives. Kylie lovingly described Sharon encouraging her after Ryan achieved a new milestone of his recovery: “Any time Ryan got better or improved she would just keep praying and telling me ‘Blake is next! Y’all are next!’.”

For Sharon, there’s one significant moment where she saw her prayers for Ryan’s recovery coming to life before her eyes. “He FaceTimed the kids and I from his hospital room and quietly mouthed the words: ‘I love you. I’m gonna be okay.’ And then he pointed up to the ceiling and said ‘God’s got me’,” she said.

Similarly, Kylie witnessed an incredible moment for Blake during his time connected to the ECMO machine. “Blake was on ECMO for 68 days, and on day 61 he stood up out of bed while still attached to the machine — if that gives you any idea of how strong of a fighter he is.”

Ryan and Sharon Senn’s reunion with with Ochsner staff that cared for him

Then, miraculously, after a total of 66 days fighting in the hospital, losing over 60 pounds in two months, Ryan began to recover. After 4 days free of the ECMO machine, Ryan left the dreary halls of the ICU unit on December 18, and was transferred to Ruston Regional for rehabilitation, where he remained for a month doing physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Though Blake was in the hospital for a longer period of time, the Senn family continued to pray for, support, and encourage others to pray for and support the Biddy family.

Blake and the Biddy children upon his release from the hospital.

The Biddy children

And finally, after a total of 125 days in the hospital, 68 days on ECMO, and a loss of over 80 pounds, Blake finally returned home as well. Little to Blake’s knowledge, he would be coming home to a celebration. “When we left rehab, the weather was dreary, but by the time we got home the sun was shining and there was a sea of people waiting with signs to greet him. Groups of our family, friends, and people following his story created a warm homecoming for him, and it was very emotional for both of us,” Kylie described. “He didn’t realize how many people he impacted with his journey.”

Currently in recovery at home, Kylie describes how happy he was to see their new house set up as a home — boxes unpacked and belongings arranged. “The first thing he did was devour tacos from a local place here in Harletown called Wright On Taco. Later on that day he fed our cows and watched our kids fish in the pond for about an hour,” said Kylie. “It was the most peace that we’ve felt in months.”

 Though the two have never met, Ryan and Blake both have a connection forged from the one shared between their wives. Kylie illustrated: “There was one time when Blake actually coded in the hospital, and Ryan could hear it from across the hallway and started immediately praying for Blake.” Because both men are still in recovery, they have yet to meet each other, but look forward to meeting one another in the future.

The journey shared between the Senn family and the Biddy family was a perilous one, with an awe-inspiring story that’s still being written. When describing what helped Sharon and Kylie persevere during some of the darkest moments in their lives, there were two things that they both agreed were the most important: the overwhelming support from the community that surrounded them, and their Christian faith.

For Sharon, there are two Bible verses that she leaned on constantly: Philippians 4:13 and Psalm 23. Kylie also has her own verses from scripture that she held close to her as well: Exodus 14:4, 2 Samuel 22:17-20, and Isaiah 43:1-3. The Old Testament story of Moses parting the waters profoundly resonated with her during Blake’s most critical moments.

Though their own spiritual beliefs helped the two women tremendously, Sharon and Kylie are aware that not everyone shares the same spiritual perspectives. When asked what advice they would give to someone with a loved one in the same unfortunate struggle as Ryan and Blake, the two shared advice that was both encouraging and attainable.

Attempting to create a healthy amount of positivity was an important factor that Sharon implemented right from the start. “I was determined that there was never going to be any negativity in Ryan’s room,” she said. “I put up photos of our family and talked positively to him and would reassure him as much as possible.” The family photos also helped the medical staff connect with the Senn family as a whole, because they got the perspective of them as people, not just as patients.

Likewise, Kylie elaborates further, advising those who feel isolated while watching a loved one fighting with COVID, reminding them: “Whatever you may think, you are not alone. It’s so important to remember that you aren’t alone,” she stated. “Even if you may not have a family or friends to lean on, you still have the medical staff attempting to save your loved one, and it’s SO important to connect with them.”

Marvelously, the end of Sharon and Kylie’s story is a happy one. Unfortunately, not everyone has had the same fortunate fate. Their hearts are heavy for others who have lost loved ones from COVID, or are currently witnessing them suffering through it. Though COVID sent devastating shockwaves of loss and grief across the globe, Sharon and Kylie both encourage others to cling to hope, community, and if they desire — to God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Sharon quoted from one of her Bible favorite verses, Philippians 4:13.

For the two families, life after the beginning of COVID is drastically different, yet still remains the same in many small ways. The ripples of fear and sorrow have slowly, gradually begun to fade away, and are replaced with overflowing thankfulness, gratitude, and awe. Time has crawled on, and everyday Ryan and Blake’s strength rebuilds. Tears and smiles have come and gone, but one thing that remains unshakable is the unconditional love shared within each family.

Now, the continuous and overwhelming sounds of mechanical beeps from hospital machines and roaring helicopters have faded into mere echoes. Instead, they are replaced with the sounds of hopeful laughter. As Sharon told Ryan’s story, she was reminded of his mantra, and grinned.

It would appear that COVID can’t kill Superman after all.

Students from Blake and Kylie’s Sunday school class lined the roads to welcome home Blake