Less than a month after losing her mother to COVID-19, registered nurse Jennifer Davis provided the first monoclonal antibody treatment to a patient at Norman Regional Hospital’s COVID Infusion Unit. Davis couldn’t save her own mother, but she is on a mission to save others from the virus, even if it means putting herself at risk.
In an Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Davis, talks about treating COVID-19 patients and the personal tragedy that motivates her.
I’ve been in health care all of my career, ever since I was 15. I worked in nursing homes as a nurse aid and worked my way up from nurse aid, to home health aide to licensed practical nurse to registered nurse. Truly, medical is all I’ve ever wanted to do. When I was young, my grandma worked in a hospital and I thought “I want to work in a hospital and be a nurse too.” And then as I got a little older, my mom had cancer. Dad would come home from the hospital and say how wonderful the nurses were. And that really geared me into, “I wanted to be an oncology nurse” because I wanted to return that favor. So, oncology was where I went.
I’ve been with Norman Regional for more than seven years. I worked with the oncology group so we did chemotherapy treatments, and I worked in outpatient infusion. It’s a plethora of anything that we can infuse you with and then send you home. I stayed with the infusion as oncology opened their own little area. I helped them get that started and then I stayed where I was at with the infusion center. But that was all prior to COVID.
I was a supervisor and didn’t have to do patient care day in and day out. But since November, I’ve gone into full-time patient care again. The monoclonal antibodies were emergently approved by the FDA for treatment of outpatient COVID for high risk, mild to moderate patients that would risk being put into the hospital for severe COVID-related symptoms. The first infusion we gave was Nov. 23. In November, December, January and February we were pretty much nonstop. And then as the numbers declined and things kind of leveled off and we started getting the vaccines, we didn’t see as much COVID. We went from probably 80 or 90 patients a week to maybe two and three. And then COVID resurged with the variants and since mid-June, we’ve been nonstop. We’re doing over a hundred infusions a week.
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If you just can imagine a piece of pie and there’s one slice missing that piece of pie is the cells in your body. And COVID attaches and fills in that one piece that’s missing. Your cells then continue to multiply so every day you’re multiplying COVID cells. In essence, that first 10 days is when you’re building the most cells and when the people that get the sickest typically go to the hospital. If we treat those patients within the first 10 days, that monoclonal antibody goes in there and attaches to that same spot on that piece of pie that COVID wants to attach to. So now it’s fighting with an antibody that’s like, “I’m bigger than better than you.” Then COVID can’t multiply anymore. And now your body is multiplying and making antibody cells. It neutralizes the growth of the COVID and kick starts your body into making more antibodies to fight it. Therefore it reduces the length of the symptoms, the amount of symptoms. And hopefully you don’t get symptomatic enough to have to go to the hospital.
I have a lot of patients actually that are so thankful that we’re there. They’re concerned with us nurses who are seeing them face to face every day. They want to know “why are you putting your life on the line for us?” And I can’t answer for anyone else, but mine becomes personal because I lost my mom to COVID before this drug was out. And I just feel like, if I can save one person’s life, I’ve done it in honor of my mom.
Last October, my mom and I both became COVID positive. My daughter had surgery the last week of September and mom and I were at the hospital with her. We became symptomatic together. On Saturday, Oct. 3, she couldn’t go and get her nails done because she was tired and didn’t feel good. And on Sunday the fourth, I remember my preacher asking me, “how are you doing?” And I go, “I don’t feel good today. I’m just tired.”
I woke up on the fifth with night sweats and body aches, and I thought it was just related to the stress. I have an autoimmune disorder and I thought it was just a flare up from the stress of my little one having a bad surgery and complications to her surgery the week before. And mom was still not feeling good either. I lost my taste on the eighth of October and that’s when I knew.
I was in denial and didn’t get tested until I had to be tested before I had surgery on my thumb. And when it came back positive, I cried and I told mom, we had COVID. And the next day mom was just getting weaker and weaker. I had asked her mom, when was the last time you had your inhaler? She said, “Oh, I haven’t had it in a week or so. It’s at the pharmacy.” So I drove to the pharmacy and we went through the drive-through and got her inhaler. She took two puffs and in 30 minutes she had chest pain and couldn’t catch her breath. I called 911 and sent her to the hospital by ambulance.
From Oct. 14 until the 30th, I studied COVID, because I was going to tell these doctors how they were going to fix my mom. It doesn’t work that way, but I tried. I studied COVID and talked to mom as much as I could. On the 16th, on the way back to her bed from the bathroom she accidentally knocked her oxygen off and her oxygen levels went down. They couldn’t get them back up and she was struggling so they sent her to the ICU.
We weren’t allowed to visit her so it was really hard to have good communication. She couldn’t keep the oxygen on with her glasses to be able to read text messages. We were very dependent on the nurses to be able to do FaceTime. And then on Oct. 30, which is my birthday, the ice storm happened that week so we were all at her house because she had tons of tree damage. I had a hard time getting a hold of the nurse that day for an update. And finally around 4 p.m. I was able to get a hold of the nurse and he said, “well, she’s not doing well.” I told them I wanted to talk to her and she gets on the phone and she says, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired.”
I told my family it was time and we needed to go to the hospital. It was my son, my brother and my aunt and they would only let two of us in to see her. My brother and my aunt were on FaceTime with one of the hospital computers. My son and I geared up and when we walked in the door, I knew she was done. But I was able to hold her hand and brush her hair, change her clothes and talk to her about planning her funeral for the last four hours of her life. And she didn’t die on my birthday. She held on until the next day.
The hardest thing I’ve had to do is lose my best friend. But God knows what he’s doing. If I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now with my COVID patients that I’ve taken care of. I wouldn’t have the passion. I wouldn’t have the ability. I wouldn’t have the knowledge of knowing why COVID does what it does or the understanding. It put me where I need to be to be able to reach out and touch these people and help them heal. And to be that sense of comfort for the ones that are terrified dropping their moms off for a COVID infusion. It’s full circle.
This work is tiring, but it’s so fulfilling. If I stay an extra 15 minutes, we can see one more patient. If someone will go get my daughter, I can see three more patients. It becomes an obsession because you want to help as many people as possible. And then if I can help all of these people stay out of the hospital, I’m also helping my colleagues that are seeing the ones that are dying. And I feel like if I can get these people in the first 10 days, they’re not going to end up at the hospital and they’re not going to die.
I have given probably 1,800 to 2,000 doses of monoclonals since November. And I don’t think that I’ve had one person die from COVID related symptoms after these infusions. That’s what I call a miracle drug.