Two doctors wearing face shields

Hannah Nemec '12, right, is helping treat COVID-19 patients with a new method.

6.16.2020
By Roanoke College News

Alumna plays key role in life-saving COVID treatment

As a chief surgery resident at The Medical Center Navicent Health at Mercer University in Georgia, Dr. Hannah Nemec ‘12 usually operates on patients every day.

When elective surgeries were put on hold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nemec and some of her colleagues suddenly saw their schedules open up.

“We had some extra time to help out in the ICU in our hospital,” Nemec said.

Nemec made the most of that extra time. She assisted in a study that helped COVID-19 patients at The Medical Center Navicent Health recover, and is helping patients all over the country recover. The study, which was published May 21 in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, proposes one way to help COVID-19 patients get more oxygen to their lungs.

As Nemec explains, many COVID-19 patients experience small blood clots in their lungs, preventing them from getting enough oxygen to easily breathe. Nemec and her colleagues at The Medical Center Navicent Health, located in Macon, Georgia, theorized that a certain treatment for blood clots could help eliminate these small blood clots.

They used this treatment — Tissue Plasminogen Activator, known as tPA — on five COVID-19 patients, some of whom were in very bad condition, Nemec said.

“Some of them were extremely sick, they were dying, they were on the ventilator,” Nemec said. “They had no options left. Everything else had been tried, including antimalarial medication, steroids — every treatment you could give them — and they were still dying.”

The first patient they gave tPA to was able to get off the ventilator and go home just a few weeks later, which Nemec said was “pretty incredible.” The next four patients also saw marked improvements, but that first patient showed the most remarkable turnaround.

“It hasn’t been used before. A lot of these things haven’t because of such a new disease, but we’re trying to do anything to save them.”

Hannah Nemec '12, on what she tells family members of COVID-19 patients her team is treating

With so many unknowns surrounding COVID-19 (2019 Novel Coronavirus), doctors are using the best information they have to try new approaches to treating patients. Nemec said it was difficult talking to patients’ families about the study without having hard evidence that it would save their loved ones.

“We called them and told them, ‘This is an off-label use. It hasn’t been used before. A lot of these things haven’t because of such a new disease, but we’re trying to do anything to save them,’” Nemec said. “And to be able to call them back and tell them that they [were taken off the ventilator] or were able to go home is really just an incredible team effort.”

The team has treated more than 15 patients using tPA, Nemec said, and is sharing the information with other hospitals in addition to publishing the study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. Nemec said a team led by doctors at Harvard University published a similar study, and is pushing for a national trial for the treatment.

Nemec, a chemistry major at Roanoke, earned a Doctor of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine (her top choice). From there, she was accepted into Mercer University’s surgery program. Nemec, originally from Catawba, Virginia, plans to specialize in trauma surgery after this residency.