In late February, as public health experts were uncovering early evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of a looming pandemic, Med Center Health infectious disease expert Dr. Rebecca Shadowen called for calm and common sense.
“This is not the first time we’ve faced an infectious disease that has spread through the population. It’s not the first time we’ve had health-related infections of major concern,” Shadowen said in an interview with the Daily News on Feb. 27.
At the time, Shadowen urged the public not to panic, but to practice good hand hygiene, stay home if they feel sick and stick to reliable information from public health resources like the CDC.
“Be level-headed and appropriate with it. Knowledge is empowerment,” Shadowen said.
On Friday, after first testing positive for the virus on May 13 and undergoing her own battle with it, Shadowen succumbed to the disease. She was 62.
“We are grieving the loss of Dr. Rebecca Shadowen. There are really no words to describe the pain felt by her family, physician colleagues and Med Center Health teammates,” Connie Smith, president and CEO of Med Center Health, announced in a statement Friday. “Dr. Shadowen will forever be remembered as a nationally recognized expert who provided the very best care for our patients and community. She was a dear friend to many.”
The news prompted condolences from Gov. Andy Beshear, who on Saturday tweeted the following:
“I am heartbroken to hear of the passing of Dr. Rebecca Shadowen, a front line hero who worked tirelessly to protect the lives of others. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues.”
Shadowen’s colleagues remember her as a stalwart of science, an epidemiological expert who was a beacon of insight during the pandemic’s earliest and most uncertain days.
Shadowen drew from a network of sources that spanned the globe, from Italy to Japan and across the U.S., and she often read late into the night, studying whatever she could about a virus that was entirely new.
Her erudition did not obstruct her availability. Shadowen’s colleagues said she often responded to queries about the disease with lengthy text messages that offered exacting detail and advice about how to move forward with planning the community’s response to the virus.
“She was one of the most brilliant minds that I’ve ever been around,” said Dr. Hugh Sims, an otolaryngologist with the Medical Center.
“She was so approachable,” said Dr. Tim Wierson, a surgeon with Graves Gilbert Clinic, describing Shadowen as a wealth of information for the local medical community.
In those early days, Dr. William Moss, who directs the Medical Center’s Emergency Room, felt the echoes of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“It was just as mysterious then as this kind of is now,” Moss said.
Both physicians had just completed their residences and were starting their careers at the Medical Center at the time. In southcentral Kentucky, “We were the only trained doctors who had seen anything of AIDS,” Moss said. The two became a resource for health care professionals across the region and even into northern Tennessee, Moss said. Even then, Moss said, Shadowen took the lead.
“She had it figured out. She knew what we needed to do,” he said, describing Shadowen as his “reference book” for dealing with the crisis. Back then, Shadowen was indispensable in Moss’ efforts in crafting responsive strategies to help save lives, he said.
Moss’ wife, a nurse who worked with Shadowen, also developed a deep respect for her, he said.
“If you say it’s red and she says it’s blue, well, it’s blue,” Moss said, jokingly paraphrasing his wife. “My wife would trust her over me, any day every day. She just exemplified a person who just worked as hard as she could work to make sure that everything was right.”
For Moss, there’s no greater example of that than when Shadowen intervened for his elderly father, a diabetic who faced amputation.
“They told him he had to have his foot removed,” Moss said, adding that his father – a WWII veteran who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day – struggled greatly with the news. Moss canceled the surgery, called Shadowen and asked for her help. Shadowen agreed to take him on as a patient.
“She worked with just multiple modalities of treatments … and my father passed away about two years later, but with his foot healed,” Moss said. “She could figure it out. She was just that type of person. She refused to lose to infection.”
Dr. Melinda Joyce, the vice president of corporate support services for Med Center Health, knew Shadowen as a close colleague, a neighbor and a friend.
Joyce’s 34-year friendship with Shadowen was first forged on Shadowen’s first day on the job at the Medical Center. Back then, Joyce personally directed the hospital’s pharmacy.
“I was so impressed because she was so very smart,” Joyce said of that day.
Along with her commitment to top-notch clinical care, Joyce remembers Shadowen as a champion of public health and as an educator who could toggle effortlessly between different audiences. Shadowen also loved to use humor to draw her audience into her message, Joyce said.
Joyce recalled a talk the two had given at a national pharmacy conference. Their audience was enthralled, she said.
“There were probably 800 people in attendance, and there was a line waiting to talk to us after the talk was over,” Joyce said. “They wanted to ask additional questions. … She had that way of immediately drawing you in.”
Eventually, the conference organizers had to ask the two to either finish up or continue taking questions out in the hallway because they needed the room, Joyce said.
“She was an excellent communicator and teacher,” Joyce said of her friend. “The community has lost a fantastic physician.”