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COVID-19 survivor finds hope and health at Community Memorial Hospital

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Photo courtesy of Brooks Lenhart Eppley

Expanded clinical trials give Southside Virginia resident access to new treatment options

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

Rebecca Jennings thought the food had gone bad.

Everything tasted terrible, and the retired teacher and guidance counselor knew something was off.

“I was having trouble breathing, and then I started coughing. That's a sure sign with me,” said Jennings, who’s had a few bouts with pneumonia. “My daughter says I was delirious. I had no hunger, no thirst. I just wanted to sleep.”

The 70-year-old had caught COVID-19 and needed to be hospitalized for five days in June. Jennings, who lives between Chase City and South Hill, Va., went to VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital.

I catch everything that comes through except men and money,” she joked.

At Community Memorial, Jennings fought off the novel coronavirus with the help of doctors and nurses, and she joined a clinical trial for canakinumab, one of several ongoing treatment trials run by VCU research teams.

From home to hospitalization

“My husband had it first,” said Jennings, who taught English, speech and drama at local schools for almost 30 years. “Then my daughter had it, but she had no symptoms.”

Because she was high risk, when Jennings’ symptoms appeared, her family quickly sent her to doctors and then to the hospital.

“I was fine, but my family was worried,” Jennings said. “I was just very weak. It was kind of rough there for a while.”

Jennings praises the nurses at Community Memorial Hospital who cared for her during her five-day hospital stay. Isolated from her family, Jennings struggled to use her phone and relied on nurses to connect her to her husband and daughter.

“All the nurses, I would probably not have done as well had they not been there,” she said. “They were so good that I kept forgetting I had COVID-19.”

Joining the first COVID-19 trial at Community Memorial Hospital

The Midlothian native was offered the chance to join a clinical trial for canankinumab, a drug being studied for its usefulness in suppressing the body’s inflammatory response to COVID-19. This was the first non-cancer clinical trial to open at Community Memorial Hospital, signaling expanded treatment opportunities for rural residents.

For this trial, Jennings received the drug once, intravenously, over the course of two hours. Doctors and nurses monitored her vital signs and followed up with phone calls after she left the hospital, checking in with questions about her health.

Jennings has long understood the value of clinical research. As someone who’s had her share of medical issues over the years, she knows that every treatment she’s been given has gone through a trial.

“You're not going to get anywhere with cures if you don't have clinical trials,” she said. “I do it because I might help many people down the road. I might help my daughter.”

The doctors who cared for her late first husband at VCU Health and the providers caring for COVID-19 patients now also inspire Jennings. “They put themselves in the line of fire.”

The expansion of clinical trials at Community Memorial Hospital to include COVID-19 means the rural community around South Hill has access to more treatment options for the potentially fatal disease.

“Patients who walked into any hospital with COVID-19 in February had zero approved treatment options,” said Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiologist who is leading the canakinumab study. “Now we know much more about this disease. Far from everything, but more. And that’s due to — one patient at a time — people like Ms. Jennings being willing to join studies.”

VCU Health has worked to ensure treatment trials are available to as many patients as possible. Its medical language services program has expanded to accommodate the need for more interpreters and translators, for example.

Of the COVID-19-positive patients hospitalized at VCU Health, 25 percent were eligible for and voluntarily enrolled in clinical trials for potential treatment drugs. And even more have volunteered their samples and data for lab studies and bio-bank registries that will help researchers study the novel coronavirus for years to come.

Fighting COVID-19 across rural as well as urban areas

Jennings sees Community Memorial Hospital as a welcome connection between her rural community and the top-ranked research hospital in Richmond. Community Memorial, which has been serving patients in Southside Virginia since 1954, joined VCU Health in 2014, and its new hospital facility in South Hill opened in 2017. Her primary care physician works at Community Memorial.

If you have a question, he’s going to answer it or he's going to find the answer,” she said.

Jennings was helicoptered to the Richmond medical center once when she had a stroke and is grateful for the care she received at both places.

As the pandemic continues to affect Virginia, VCU Health locations throughout the commonwealth provide everything from testing to primary care to intensive care.

“VCU Health’s focus on preserving and restoring health for patients goes far beyond Richmond city. Our expansion of clinical trials to South Hill is just one way that teams across VCU Health are working diligently to meet the health care needs of all Virginians,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., interim CEO of VCU Health System and interim senior vice president of VCU Health Sciences.

Jennings hopes Virginians will continue to take the virus seriously. Even though she survived, Jennings believes that some side effects are lingering.

“Wear a mask,” she said. “Follow the rules. Not only for yourself, but for everyone.”