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Clinical trial may have helped COVID patient beat life-threatening pneumonia

Veteran barely remembers month-long ordeal but grateful for his quality care and research participation.

Angela Griffin and Pee-J Beverly Angela Griffin and Pee-J Beverly

Contributed by the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

Paul “Pee-J” Beverly doesn’t remember being airlifted to VCU Health from Lexington, Va., last fall. In fact, he doesn’t remember much of his COVID-19 experience at all.

But his girlfriend, Angela Griffin, does.

“It was one of the scariest things I've ever been through,” she said. “Not being able to see him, barely being able to talk to him. And knowing it was touch and go. They pretty much prepared his parents and me for the idea that he might not make it.”

But Pee-J, 45, survived his harrowing experience with COVID-19 thanks to the extensive treatment and compassion of his many VCU Health doctors, nurses and on-site therapists. And his participation in a clinical trial may have helped him overcome the dangerous pneumonia that hit him hard.

From stomach ache to COVID-19

Pee-J, who served eight years in the Army, started feeling sick in October. He was having trouble breathing and could barely move. He couldn’t keep down food.

“It was the fatigue at first,” he said. “I felt very lethargic and couldn't move. When I lay around, I know I'm sick because I'm a person always on the move.”

He went to the hospital in Lexington, the closest to his Buena Vista home. They thought it was his stomach and sent him home.

“He had had surgery for a hernia in September, and he’s had a lot of stomach issues, so at first they thought it was that and pneumonia,” Angela said.

But it didn’t get better. Pee-J went back to the emergency department at Lexington on October 30 and things went quickly downhill. He was put on a ventilator and given paralytics to prevent further lung damage.

“I was able to talk to him on the phone up until that Sunday,” Angela said. “When I called to check on him Monday morning, he couldn't talk, and they were getting ready to send him to Richmond. They said that he was in bad shape.”

“I woke up and I was at VCU Health,” Pee-J said. “I didn't know I’d been in a helicopter until my family told me about it.”

Thankful for the option to join clinical trial

Because Pee-J was on the ventilator and on paralytic drugs, VCU Health asked his family for permission to place Pee-J in a clinical trial.

When the pandemic hit, there were no approved treatments for COVID-19. VCU Health worked quickly to join several trials and bring cutting-edge treatments to its patients. Pee-J qualified for a trial testing the safety and efficacy of two drugs, MSTT1041A and UTTR1147A, in fighting severe COVID-19 pneumonia in hospitalized patients.

“His parents gave permission for the doctors to do whatever they could to try to save his life,” Angela said. “There was no hesitation to join a clinical trial. They were thankful to have the option.”

Whatever they did, it worked, she said. “Once they started him on the medicines, you could see fast improvements.”

Pee-J remembers being told, after he woke up, that they’d used experimental drugs on him. He was relieved, even though he didn’t know whether he’d received the placebo or the real drug.

“They may have saved my life,” he said.

Foggy memories but quality care

Pee-J has flashes of memories of his time in the hospital — nurses and doctors talking to him, taking care of him. He has trouble distinguishing the dreams he had from reality.

“At one point, I thought I could see doctors teleporting in and out the room,” he said, laughing.

For Angela, at home, the situation was nerve-wracking. She believes Pee-J caught the virus from her after an outbreak at her workplace. She tested positive on November 1, two days after Pee-J went into the Lexington hospital for the second time.

Angela recalls one nurse talking her through a rough time when things looked especially bad for Pee-J. And another nurse, Joseph Albright, who would lay his phone on Pee-J’s chest so she could speak to him, even though he couldn’t always reply.

“That was probably the best thing Joe could’ve done,” she said. “Pee-J was really out of it, but sometimes I could hear his voice. And I could talk to him.”

“When they took him to Richmond, it was honestly, in my opinion, the best thing they could have done for him,” Angela said. “They saved his life.”

For Pee-J’s part, he remembers the care and kindness of the staff and providers at VCU Health once he woke up. He got off the ventilator on Nov. 10, and several days of rehabilitation and therapy followed.

“After I was off the ventilator and went to a regular room, the nurses there and all the staff, they were cool,” he said. “One day I'm gonna go down there and thank them personally. That's my goal.”

Grateful to be home

Pee-J says he was shaky with gratitude when he arrived back home in Buena Vista on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 28.

Angela recalls going to see Pee-J’s doctor for the first time after Pee-J came home.

“The file was a few inches thick,” she said. “The doctor laid it down and said, ‘Paul, you have been through some stuff.’”

Several of Pee-J’s family members died of COVID-19, and he feels blessed to have survived.

“The side effects of the virus are pretty much gone now. The COVID cough lasted till last month, but now it’s finally out of my system,” he said. “I can smell and taste again.”

Pee-J is eager to advise others to do their best to avoid COVID-19.

“I wouldn't wish that on anybody,” he said. “I've been through a lot in my life, but that was the worst.”

Learn about International Clinical Trials Day and what clinical trials can do for you.  

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