Debbie C You Can’t Knock Me Down

“That’s just the kind of person I am. You can’t knock me down.”

When Debbie Capasso awoke with excruciating abdominal pain one night in late March 2020, the prospect of having COVID-19 never crossed her mind. She recently had been diagnosed with a sinus infection, and abdominal pain wasn’t considered a common symptom of COVID-19. “Nobody really understood what COVID was at the time,” says the 68-year-old Somerset retiree.

Her husband, Joe, called their neighbor, a gastroenterologist, who told him to get Debbie to the emergency room immediately. Debbie’s pain was so severe that she lost consciousness during the ambulance ride to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset.

Michael Rodricks, MD
Michael Rodricks, MD

It was the first in a string of major health issues for Debbie. She would end up being treated at RWJUH Somerset several times in just two years. “The total number of health care challenges Debbie faced in a short time is among the most in a single patient that I have seen in my 25 years in medicine,” says Michael Rodricks, MD, Medical Director of Critical Care at RWJUH Somerset.

Critical Condition

Debbie’s condition at RWJUH Somerset rapidly deteriorated. She developed respiratory distress shortly after her arrival at the hospital. Despite the lack of rapid testing in the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Rodricks and the critical care team quickly determined that her symptoms were COVID-19-related and life-threatening. “I was in a daze. I didn’t know what to do,” Joe says. “I called my family and friends, and we all just started praying.”

Debbie received remdesivir—an antiviral shown to reduce severe COVID symptoms—as well as an anticoagulation drug to prevent blood clots. Despite the powerful medications, she further deteriorated, developing acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Because of her severely compromised lungs, Debbie required intubation and was placed on a ventilator. She remained on life support for a total of 15 days.

Due to infection risks during this pre-vaccine period of the pandemic, no visitors were allowed in the hospital, so Joe couldn’t visit his wife. Dr. Rodricks called Joe every day with updates on Debbie’s condition. He was “a calming influence,” Joe says. The two discovered they shared a love of Notre Dame football. “It made for a distraction from all the chaos, pain, suffering and death that was taking place throughout the country at the time,” Dr. Rodricks says.

Stephen Kayiaros, MD
Stephen Kayiaros, MD

After prolonged stays in the intensive care unit and later a rehabilitation unit, Debbie went home in early May 2020. Side effects like hair loss, numbness in her tongue and blood blisters from the ventilator seemed minor: She and her husband were thankful she was alive and making a remarkable recovery.

Continued Challenges

Debbie’s difficulties were, unfortunately, far from over. In the middle of a snowstorm in February 2021, she underwent total knee replacement surgery. She had needed the procedure for about three years, as pain in her right knee had become unbearable. “I couldn’t function,” Debbie says. Stephen Kayiaros, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at RWJUH Somerset, performed the surgery.

By May, she had recovered well enough from her knee replacement to again take up one of the great joys of her life: playing golf. But later that month came the next unwelcome milestones.

Robert Boretz, MD
Robert Boretz, MD

First, Debbie slipped and broke her wrist while gardening at home. Several days later, she went to RWJUH Somerset’s emergency room with another bout of gastrointestinal pain. This time the diagnosis was diverticulitis, an infection of her colon.

Robert Boretz, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at RWJUH Somerset, examined X-rays of Debbie’s wrist and put it in a brace for five weeks. Meanwhile, taking antibiotics to fight the colon infection resolved her stomach pain.

In August, Debbie completed physical therapy for her wrist and returned to the links. She has golfed with neighborhood friends for 30 years, and her love of the sport motivated her during her recoveries. “I missed golf so bad,” Debbie says. “It was the one thing I had to get back to doing.”

Thangamani Seenivasan, MD
Seenivasan, MD

Then, while sitting in church with her husband the following month, Debbie had a recurrence of her excruciating abdominal pain. “To the ER we go again,” she says. CT scans showed an abscess in her colon caused by inflammation from her diverticulitis. She met with Thangamani Seenivasan, MD, a surgeon and oncologist at RWJUH Somerset, who ultimately performed a colostomy, which removed the abscess and part of the colon to create a bypass of the damage.

Debbie was sent home wearing a colostomy bag. Three months later, when the inflammation died down, Dr. Seenivasan performed a reverse colostomy to remove the bag and reattach Debbie’s colon.

Dr. Rodricks visited Debbie during the procedures. “She was always upbeat but definitely looked forward to being discharged,” he says. “I think she’d had enough of being in the hospital to last a lifetime.”

Debbie, husband Joe and her care staff
Debbie Capasso (third from right) came through severe illnesses and major surgeries at RWJUH Somerset with help from (from left) Chief Medical Officer Salvatore Moffa, MD; Medical Director of Critical Care Michael Rodricks, MD; Debbie’s husband, Joe; orthopedic surgeon Stephen Kayiaros, MD; and surgical oncologist Thangamani Seenivasan, MD.

An Optimistic Outlook

Through every procedure, Debbie has stayed positive. “That’s just the kind of person I am,” she says. “You can’t knock me down.”

Dr. Rodricks credits Debbie’s perseverance and optimism for speeding her healing. “Her strong drive to get better has undoubtedly served her well in her recoveries,” he says. “She always has the attitude of ‘when I am fully recovered,’ not ‘if I can recover.’”

“I owe a great deal to all the wonderful doctors who took excellent care of me,” Debbie says. In addition, Joe’s devotion to Debbie’s care “cannot be understated,” Dr. Rodricks says. Joe quit his job for a year and a half to grocery shop and cook for Debbie while she grappled with her challenges and fought her way back to health. Debbie says she wouldn’t be here without Joe: “My husband saved my life.”

Learn more about Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset in Somerville, New Jersey.