Running out of options, clinical trial saves man’s life

Telegraph photo by DEAN SHALHOUP An entourage made up of family members and medical personnel accompanies Joe Jozitis as he exits Southern New Hampshire Medical Center Wednesday afternoon following his near-fatal bout with COVID-19.

NASHUA – Three days into April, former Nashua resident Joe Jozitis arrived at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in bad shape.

Diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, Jozitis was sent straight to the hospital’s intensive care unit. There, he rallied, raising hopes among members of his immediate and extended families, as well as the medical team assembled to care for him.

But the rally was brief. Jozitis’s condition began declining. It soon reached the point that his care team “was pretty sure he would not survive” his bout with the dreaded virus that’s now about to kill its 100,000th victim in the United States.

There were prayers, and preparations. Jozitis’s wife, Sue, and their family had to start thinking about the unthinkable.

Fast forward several weeks.

On Wednesday, Joe Jozitis emerged from the Prospect Street side of SNHMC into the warm, humid, sun-splashed May afternoon, surrounded by an entourage of personal protective equipment-clad doctors, nurses and other hospital specialists assembled to bid Jozitis goodbye upon his long-awaited discharge from the hospital.

The broad smile never left Jozitis’s face as he transferred himself from the obligatory wheelchair to the passenger seat of his SUV that Sue had just pulled up to the door.

He waved and nodded thank-yous to everyone who had come to see him off, finally settling into the seat for the drive back to the Litchfield home he hadn’t seen in almost two months.

Hospital marketing and communications personnel directed members of the media to assemble outside in the patient drop-off area to await Jozitis and his entourage, who had gathered inside the lobby to exchange brief remarks and bestow best wishes to Jozitis and his family.

The schedule didn’t include time for media representatives to speak with Jozitis, but photography was encouraged once he was outside the hospital.

Meanwhile, Dr. Timothy Scherer, the hospital’s chief medical officer, and Cheryl Gagne, vice president of nursing, spoke at length with reporters, describing an emotional roller-coaster of a case that turned out the way they’d always hoped, but at one time didn’t think possible.

Jozitis’s savior was convalescent plasma treatment, a regimen in which the seriously ill COVID-19 patient is given plasma donated by a person who had the virus but recovered, according to Scherer.

The hope is that the donated plasma will help the ill patient to fight the infection more efficiently, he said.

Another critical component of Jozitis’s success story involved timing: Southern New Hampshire Medical Center had just joined a nationwide clinical trial, under the direction of the Mayo Clinic, to study convalescent plasma treatment and its effect on COVID-19 patients.

Seeing the treatment as “Jozitis’s last hope,” Scherer and the care team gave it a shot.

Within days after receiving the plasma, Jozitis’s health “took a dramatic turn for the better,” Scherer said.

“Soon he was able to breathe on his own. And now,” he said Wednesday, “he can go home to his family.”

During Jozitis’s six-week stint in intensive care, his team “turned over every rock,” looking for “something, anything … that would give him a chance to live,” Scherer said.

Gagne, the head of the nursing department, called Scherer “our spark,” who was frequently heard asking, “what can we do next?” she said.

Asked if members of Jozitis’s care team became emotionally invested in the case, she didn’t hesitate.

“It’s hard not to be,” she said, noting that there were more than a few pairs of tear-filled eyes during Jozitis’s sendoff Wednesday.

“It’s just so rewarding, to see someone go from the brink of death to going home,” Gagne added, becoming a bit emotional herself.

Added Scherer, to watch (Jozitis) walk out of here is very, very rewarding, for all of us.”