Immunotherapy treatment for Veterans with Leukemia - North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System
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Immunotherapy treatment for Veterans with Leukemia

Pictured Lawanna Beyer, RN assists Army Veteran John Ellis

Lawanna Beyer, RN assists Army Veteran John Ellis with the completion of his first phase of immunotherapy to treat Leukemia at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Immunotherapy treatment offered at NF/SGVHS
paves way for Veterans battling Leukemia

By Melanie L. Thomas, MBA, Public Affairs Officer

After 8 spinal taps, several attempts to administer chemotherapy through a mechanism implanted in his brain, radiation, and enduring harmful side-effects from a potent medication, Army Veteran John Ellis remains optimistic about beating his Leukemia thanks to an innovative immunotherapy treatment recommended by North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System’s (NF/SGVHS) Hematology and Oncology Section Chief, Dr. Jessica Schmit. 

“Immunotherapy was recommended to Mr. Ellis because his Leukemia did not respond to conventional chemotherapy,” said Schmit. 

Ellis is the first patient at NF/SGVHS to be treated with this approach to defeating Leukemia and has successfully completed his first phase of the treatment process. 

“Immunotherapy has dramatically changed the landscape of cancer care. What used to be considered universally fatal, is now treatable with novel therapies” said Schmit. “We hope that with further research and advancements in cancer care, we will be able to offer the chance of cure to all cancer patients.” 

Ellis explains that immunotherapy was his last hope and that without it he would not make it to Christmas.

“The only thing that I can tell people is that if this buys me more time, it’ll be worth it. I’m tired, but I’ll do this for as long as I need to,” said Ellis.

Immunotherapy treatments will take several months to administer and are divided up into 4 phases with two week breaks in between.

“I am looking forward to my birthday on Veterans Day this year. All of my treatments will be completed by then and I should be able to enjoy the holidays with my family,” said Ellis. 

Ellis attributes the success of his treatments to committed NF/SGVHS staff who won’t give up on him. 

“Everyone has been super attentive and willing to learn how to administer this treatment. We’ve had plenty of meetings and staff have been vigilant in getting trained to do what they need to do to give me this treatment,” said Ellis. “They’ve even sat right outside my door to watch me during my first 2 days of treatment just to be sure that I had no other adverse reactions.”

Immunotherapy is treatment that utilizes your own body’s immune system to fight a disease. There are several types of immunotherapies designed to either boost or stimulate the immune system or mimic immune system proteins to help the body better recognize and attack cancer cells. In this case, the immunotherapy specifically helps to engage the body’s own cytotoxic T-cells to attack the cancerous B-cells in Leukemia. 

NF/SGVHS Pharmacist Paige May explains that the unique challenges Mr. Ellis’ treatment presents is in the actual administration and toxicity management of the immunotherapy. 

“This type of treatment is rarely administered at VA Medical Centers. Patients are often referred to transplant centers,” said May.

However, Mr. Ellis and his wife have insisted on receiving the treatments at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville because of their close relationships with Ellis’ health care providers. 

“We could’ve gone anywhere else to get this done, but I wanted to come here because I was comfortable here. I feel like I know the staff very well and trust them with my life,” said Ellis. 

According to May, Ellis is well known to Hematology and Oncology staff and has a fighting spirit. 

“Throughout a complicated disease course, Mr. Ellis has maintained a positive attitude and spirit. When walking into the hospital to begin his first infusion (knowing he was the first patient to receive it here) he was the one to reassure us (the staff) saying: “Don’t worry. I am going to walk out of here,” said May. 

The amount of thought and preparation required to treat Ellis’ disease was daunting, but everyone involved rose to the challenge explains May. 

“Everyone embraced the specialized training and was willing to learn and adapt to help Mr. Ellis. Many services, physicians, nurses, and pharmacists were involved,” said May. “The success of his first cycle of treatment is a testament to the strength of our entire team working together to adapt to this very difficult and challenging situation. This just proves that we can provide even the most complex treatments to help Veterans,” said May. 

Proud of their work, medical staff at NF/SGVHS are prepared to administer the complex treatment to additional Leukemia patients at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. 

“Even though a complete cure is very rare, I am incredibly grateful to the staff here at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. They’ve given me every opportunity to beat this thing,” said Ellis. 

Immunotherapy is used in many different cancers, and most cancer patients will be a candidate at some point in their treatment. NF/SGVHS has used numerous types of immunotherapy over the years and continues to implement innovative ways to treat Veterans fighting cancer. 

About the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System

NF/SGVHS is one of the nation’s leading VA healthcare systems employing more than 5,800 medical professionals and support staff dedicated to providing high quality care to Veterans residing throughout North Florida and South Georgia. The organization operates 14 facilities to include two medical centers located in Gainesville and Lake City, a domiciliary and clinics located throughout a 50-county service area. 

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