Videography: Carson Young, Jeff Myers, Laura Gasque and Steve Wood
Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to uab.edu/uabunited for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.
In late March 2020, Drew McDonald of Trussville, Alabama, started noticing some backaches and body pains along with a low-grade fever after eating dinner with his family on a Friday night. The father of two went to bed and woke up the next morning to a fever of more than 102, and aches that he recalls “hitting” his bones.
COVID-19 was now wildly in the news, and hospitalization rates were rising. While McDonald had been working from home for two weeks and not exposed to the public, he knew that what he was feeling was not the common cold or flu.
“I had just had the flu in February and knew that what I was feeling was just so much more intense and onset than the flu,” McDonald recalled. “I had a gut feeling that it was COVID-19, and after seeking medical attention and self-isolating for several days, it was confirmed that my body was battling this new virus.”
He immediately isolated himself from his young children and wife, and his symptoms worsened throughout the next few days — including shortness of breath and continued fever. While he thought his symptoms were starting to improve about six days after he first fell ill, he took a turn for the worse and was unable to breathe. McDonald was rushed to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, where he was immediately admitted and treated for COVID-19.
“When I was in the ambulance, they asked me where I wanted to go, and I just said, ‘Take me to UAB.’”
Upon arrival and admission to UAB, McDonald was approached by Division of Infectious Diseases physicians about potentially enrolling in a clinical trial for COVID-19 treatment that he could be a candidate for. He agreed, with little hesitation.
“Drew stood out because his immediate inclination when approached about the study was that he wanted to participate to help others who would inevitably be in his position in the future,” said Nathan Erdmann, M.D., assistant professor in UAB’s School of Medicine who supported enrollment and oversaw the trial during its duration. “Clinical trials are the foundation of evidence-based medicine, and these trials cannot proceed without participation. The trial process, by definition, involves a degree of uncertainty, and this can be intimidating to potential participants.”
UAB was one of 75 global sites for the National Institutes of Health-sponsored, phase three therapeutic clinical trial, which tested the efficacy of a potential treatment for COVID-19 with an intravenous drug, remdesivir. The investigational compound for remdesivir was developed in part from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases funding of a U19 grant awarded to UAB’s Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center.
McDonald began an intravenous infusion daily for three or so days before he was healthy enough to be discharged home. As the trial was randomized, double-blinded and placebo-controlled, McDonald and his doctors still are unsure if he received the remdesivir or placebo as part of his role in the trial; however, he believes that his quick recovery and subsequent discharge from the hospital just five days after admission is due to receiving remdesivir.
After experiencing the novel coronavirus firsthand, McDonald cautions people to take health alerts and information seriously. In his late 20s with a normally clean bill of health, McDonald did not think he was in the at-risk population for getting COVID-19, but did. He also is now a firm believer that any way that patients can help contribute to research will only help better medicine and outcomes for others, particularly as it relates to new viruses that doctors are not familiar with.
“I had confidence in the research being done at UAB. Sometimes we hear conflicting information, whether from social media or different news outlets that we are listening to; but these doctors who are approaching people like me to enroll in a trial live and breathe this every day and truly want to find the answer,” McDonald shared. “Helping research in any way, if anyone has the capacity, that’s how we get answers and how drugs get discovered. I’m grateful for all that UAB is doing to help further research and save lives.”