VALDOSTA – Family, friends and family friends stood outside of South Georgia Medical Center with signs emblazoned with “#JennaStrong,” “Faith over Fear,” “We love you.”
They were waiting for Jenna Bolling, a 32-year-old mother and Lakeland first-grade teacher, to come out of the hospital for the first time in three months after contracting COVID-19 Aug. 22.
For her, it was a harrowing experience, but she never lost faith, she said. That’s why she consigned her will to Jeremiah 29:11.
“It means that I might not know what the future holds, but the Lord does,” Bolling said. “He has a plan for me that I might not be able to see right now.”
And that was indeed true. Going into August, Bolling was ready to start the school semester with her students after coming off of quarantine. The first day of school was coming and she was prepping her virtual teaching style.
“I was going to be a virtual teacher and I had my mind set that I was going to beat (COVID-19),” she said. “But my whole family caught it inside the house and they got over it really quick.”
She thought she’d be like them, specifically her husband, Chris, and her two sons, Jaxson and Hudson. They got over COVID-19 in three weeks, but like she said, God had other plans for her.
Her bout with the virus took a turn for the worse. It was surprising. It was rough, Chris said. Jenna had no underlying medical issues and she was 25 weeks pregnant with their third son.
He did the only thing he could do, pray, as Jenna started having fevers and respiratory issues that got progressively worse.
“I did a lot of praying and I just thank God that he was healing her every single day,” Chris said. “I kept my faith and God had seen us through. It was difficult (though).”
The difficulty came especially during Jenna’s first stay at SGMC.
Entering a three-month stay
Dr. Brian Dawson, chief medical officer, who oversaw her treatment, said the hospital tried every standard and emergency treatment available.
Treatment included convalescent plasma (donated plasma with antibodies from people who previously had COVID-19), antiviral remdesivir, and high-flow oxygen therapy to name a few.
“She required increasing levels of respiratory support to the point that eventually she had to be placed on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which is basically like a bypass system for the lungs,” Dawson said. “She was able to improve to the point that she was able to come off of ECMO.”
During the first week of her SGMC stay, the stress COVID-19 put on her body and pregnancy caused her to go into preterm labor and her son was born via emergency C-section.
The short explanation is the infection forced her body into a hyper-immune response, which for a developing fetus can be difficult for growth, Dawson said.
The long explanation is the hyper-immune response causes systemic inflammatory response syndrome which causes increased heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure fluctuates and the body tries to preserve its most vital organs.
When the body is dealing with that on top of a pregnancy, it has to make a decision as the placenta requires a large metabolic demand.
“It’s not uncommon that when someone is very ill that the placenta will not be able to supply that demand if the fetus isn’t developed,” Dawson said. “Rather than the fetus being injured or underdeveloped, sometimes the body will move to the point where it basically self-terminates that pregnancy.”
Jenna Bolling she had to really trust in God after losing her child. Her goal was to stay positive, but when you’re cut off from family and friends, how do you do that?
SGMC was no stranger to dealing with pregnant patients with COVID-19, most of them were in their late terms and “did quite well” when a delivery needed to occur.
In Jenna’s case, an exception needed to be made. She didn’t need to deal with losing a third child on her own. So, SGMC made a special provision to allow Chris to see his wife.
“We went through extraordinary efforts to make sure that not only could he see her, but we could maintain both of their safeties under the circumstances,” Dawson said.
The concern became not only about her respiratory condition but also about her psychological condition – the stress behind the loss. Her physical condition sometimes made that difficult.
Falling down, rising up
SGMC did what it could to treat her ailments but Jenna became sicker by the day eventually leading to a life-flight to University of Florida Health Shands Hospital.
She was placed on the ECMO machine there and spent weeks in Shands’ ICU; the machine acted as lungs while her lungs healed. Her immune system began to return and she became well enough to be transferred back to SGMC.
Like grass growing back after a forest fire, it takes a while for the body to return to its homeostasis – its norm.
At SGMC, Jenna was transferred to IP Rehab where she relearned daily tasks such as walking and showering without assistance.
Dawson explained this happened because she was physically inactive for so long.
“Whenever your lungs are inflamed and you’re having difficulty breathing, you can’t move around,” he said. “When you don’t move around, you get weaker and as you get weaker, you have other issues that can arise.”
For example, doctors found an infection in Jenna’s heart and staph in her blood likely caused by the ECMO machine’s cannulas that were sewn into her neck and groin area.
Julie Hodges, Jenna’s aunt and SGMC financial services controller, said Jenna persevered and continued her physical and occupational therapy.
It was difficult at first as doctors kept Jenna moving and physically engaged. She learned a lesson she said she’d remember forever.
“Never take anything for granted even little things like putting your socks on,” Jenna said, referring to her inability to even put socks on before finishing physical therapy.
Making friends with strangers brought comfort.
Camaraderie in isolation
Jenna didn’t know anyone going into SGMC, but she gained the entire hospital’s support by the time of her leave. She grew close to a lot of people, Dawson said.
“She became a symbol of hope here at the hospital and that’s why so many people had come by to see her off,” he said, referring to nurses from every unit seeing her off. “They became quite close to her almost to the point that we had to restrict hospital staff from visiting her.”
They were invested in seeing her get better, much like the community and the world at large who shared her story across Facebook.
Jenna was overwhelmed by the support.
On her way out of SGMC’s Dasher Heart Center, she passed through a hallway of applauding nurses only to meet a group of family and friends who showered her with love. The cherry on top was hugging her sons again.
She never knew that at the age of 32 she’d have to deal with this loss, this journey and the recovery that stems from it. She doesn’t wish this experience on anyone.
“Wash your hands, wear your mask, stay safe, be diligent if you do catch the virus and take care of yourself,” Jenna said.
Jenna Bolling’s road to a full recovery will see her as an outpatient at SGMC taking antibiotic treatments, Dawson said, and it could be four to six weeks, maybe longer, until she’s at 100%.
“We need to remember this is one case and she’s gotten better," Dawson said, "but this virus is still there."