Julie Freeman lay in bed at her Point Breeze home in January, sick with COVID-19. Although her symptoms weren’t severe enough that she needed to go to the hospital, they were getting worse. And she was terrified of the disease.
“I thought, ‘I’m on my way to dying,'” she says. “I felt very sick. I was just lying in the dark with a washcloth on my head, taking my temperature. We had tried to avoid this so carefully. I was just very scared.”
Julie and her husband, Irv, have pre-existing medical conditions that put them at high risk of COVID-19 complications. And now Julie faced that possibility.
One hope she and Irv had was monoclonal antibodies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had authorized monoclonal antibodies as a COVID-19 treatment, and it showed great promise.
Two days after Julie’s positive COVID-19 test, she received the monoclonal antibody treatment from UPMC. And a little over a week later, Irv tested positive for COVID-19 and received monoclonal antibodies. The treatment helped both Julie and Irv recover from COVID-19, avoiding hospitalization and possibly death.
“For me, it was a miracle,” Julie says.
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‘I Felt Like Hope Had Come to Me’
When COVID-19 hit the United States, Julie and Irv took it very seriously. They knew they faced a higher risk of COVID-19 complications because of their age — both are 64 years old — and pre-existing health conditions. The Freemans are overweight, and Irv has diabetes and high blood pressure.
Julie and Irv avoided crowds and other situations that would put them at risk for COVID-19. But in mid-January, Julie began to feel sick with flu-like symptoms: a fever, chills, cough, and a bad headache.
She tested positive for COVID-19.
“I really did not think that I had COVID because I’d been so careful,” she says. “But I knew if it was even a possibility, I would have to segregate myself until I knew for sure. I was very surprised when I got the positive result.”
Julie wasn’t sick enough to go to the hospital. But she was still sick, and her symptoms were getting worse.
The Freemans had heard of monoclonal antibodies from news reports. Scientists create monoclonal antibodies in a lab to target a specific disease-causing organism like SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. When you receive monoclonal antibodies, they act like your body’s natural antibodies, helping you to fight off a disease.
The FDA authorized monoclonal antibodies as a COVID-19 treatment in November 2020. When given to patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 shortly after infection, monoclonal antibodies have significantly reduced the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
“It was something we had discussed before Julie got sick,” Irv says. “We knew about them and decided if we were to get sick, we would want to seek treatment.”
After Julie’s positive test, Irv contacted someone he knew in health care in the Erie area. That phone call helped the Freemans get connected with UPMC. Julie qualified for the treatment and scheduled an appointment.
On a Friday in January — four days after Julie began feeling symptoms and two days after her positive test — Irv drove her to a UPMC infusion center in Monroeville. The treatment took 2 hours: 1 hour for the IV infusion of the monoclonal antibodies and another hour for post-treatment evaluation.
“As soon as I was in the chair and they put the IV in and started the drip, I felt like hope had come to me,” Julie says. “I had such strong feelings of hope because my goal had always been that this treatment is out there, and it will be able to help me.”
Over the weekend, Julie’s symptoms began to lessen. Her headache went away, her coughing eased, and her fever went down. By the Monday after her treatment, she felt healthy again.
But the Freemans’ COVID-19 journey wasn’t quite over yet.
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‘It Was Pretty Much Inevitable’
After Julie began feeling sick, she isolated herself in a room of her and Irv’s home. Irv took care of her, taking every preventive measure to keep from getting COVID-19.
“We were being as careful as we could,” Irv says. “I would take her something to eat, and I would be masked and gloved and all that. But we’re breathing the same air in the same house. It was pretty much inevitable.”
The Wednesday after Julie’s treatment, Irv began feeling minor flu-like symptoms, including fatigue and congestion. “If it weren’t for the fact that Julie had already tested positive, I wouldn’t have even thought these were COVID symptoms,” he says. “But obviously, she had.”
When Irv’s symptoms didn’t go away after a couple of days, he got a COVID-19 test on Friday. It came back positive on Sunday.
Irv knew he was at risk of complications and didn’t want to take any chances. It was early in his illness, and the symptoms were minor — the right time to get treatment. So, he contacted UPMC and scheduled the monoclonal antibody treatment.
Like Julie, Irv experienced no problems with the infusion and felt better after the treatment. His symptoms never became severe, and the treatment aided his recovery.
“Having other people’s experiences in mind, I don’t discount the possibility that it saved my life,” he says. “I never got sick, and that’s really the goal of it — to make sure you never get really sick.”
‘It Can Save Your Life’
The Freemans’ success story is one of many for the use of monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19. UPMC released a report in March 2021 that said monoclonal antibodies had significantly reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in patients.
“This treatment has cut serious complications of COVID-19 and that has been truly transformative for this pandemic,” says Graham Snyder, MD, medical director, Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology, UPMC.
Monoclonal antibodies must be given shortly after infection — within 7 to 10 days — to individuals with mild or moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk for severe illness. That includes patients over age 65 and patients with pre-existing medical conditions that put them at higher risk of complications.
That included the Freemans. When Julie got sick with COVID-19, both she and Irv knew they were at risk of serious complications. Irv even began to put the family’s affairs in order, locating important documents and pulling together important information for the couple’s children.
Thanks to monoclonal antibodies, those actions became unnecessary. More than two months post-treatment, Julie and Irv have experienced no side effects or setbacks. The Freemans have spread the word about how monoclonal antibodies helped them. They hope more people who have COVID-19 will seek the treatment.
“You can’t predict the course of an illness, but there’s a time limit to when you can get this medication,” she says. “Do it, because it’s the easiest thing, and it can save your life.”
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.