Human Interest Nursing Student With Rare and Debilitating Condition Related to COVID Pushes Through 'Devastating' Setbacks Samantha Cercena, 22, left school due to a disorder called post-COVID viral gastroparesis. When a local hospital heard, they offered to hold a spot for her in their prestigious training program By Diane Herbst Published on April 29, 2022 03:09 PM Share Tweet Pin Email Samantha Cercena in January, 2021. Photo: courtesy Samantha Cercena In October 2020, 22-year-old Samantha Cercena was looking forward to finishing her senior year at Ohio University and graduating in the spring with a nursing degree, her childhood dream. But during her hands-on clinical training at a hospital pediatrics department, she tested positive for COVID-19. Cercena, of Columbus, Ohio, became ill with respiratory symptoms and body aches. "And then about a week and a half in, all of a sudden, I just was not able to keep anything down at all," she recalls. "And it has never changed. That's been my symptoms for the last year and a half." Cercena was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a relatively uncommon disorder that slows or stops the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. She would eventually see a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, who told her it was triggered by the virus causing COVID-19 — a very rare condition called Post-COVID Viral Gastroparesis. "I would basically just eat and throw up," she says. Cercena obtained very little nutrition, losing 40 pounds by March and ultimately requiring feedings through a surgically implanted tube. "The day before I got a feeding tube, I was at clinical for eight hours giving vaccines outside in 7-degree weather," she says. "With no nutrition." Weakened by her ordeal, Cercena could not complete her final coursework to graduate in May. In November, she began requiring intravenous fluids for additional nutrients for 12 hours each day, a process called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). This past New Year's Eve, she developed sepsis related to a central line in her chest and went into septic shock; she coded in the emergency room, was placed on a ventilator and spent time recovering in the ICU. COVID Nurse Struggles with PTSD After Seeing Her Patients Die: 'I Wonder Why I'm Still Breathing' Samantha Cercena in the ICU, Jan. 1, 2022 for treatment of septic shock. courtesy Samantha Cercena The ordeal left her unable to return to school "like I had originally planned," says Cercena, who learned she'd been accepted into a selective emergency room immersion training program at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital. She had to drop out before she even started. "At the time it was devastating," she says, "because I was so excited, that's what I had really hoped for and where I wanted to be placed." Still, Cercena held onto her dream of becoming an ER nurse. "I have kind of always loved emergency," she says. "And just through my own experience in the last couple years, it has really solidified that's where I want to be." Samantha Cercena. courtesy Samantha Cercena Her story, first published by ABC6/FOX28 this past February, caught the attention of Louis Tejada, the Critical Care Fellowship Manager at OhioHealth, a family of not-for-profit healthcare providers located in Columbus, named one of PEOPLE'S 100 Companies That Care in 2021. Moved by her resilience, Tejada reached out to Cercena and told her that when she is ready, there will be a spot for her in one of OhioHealth's emergency departments for a training immersion program. Las Vegas Nurse Brushes and Braids Patients' Hair on Her Days Off: 'It's That Connection' "Everything that Samantha's been through, at such a young age, she is going to be an amazing nurse. If I can have a piece in helping Samantha achieve that dream," Tejada says, "then I want to do that." Louis Tejada. Courtesy Louis Tejada The offer gave Cercena a much-needed boost. "To have Louis reach out to me and say we're here whenever you're ready, I was very excited," she says. "I'm still very excited." "My goal has always been to be able to go back and finish and help others in the way that the staff at Riverside [an OhioHealth hospital in Columbus] and Cleveland Clinic have helped me," she says. "That's been my biggest goal." At the end of May, Cercena will be undergoing an operation to fully remove her colon, with doctors attaching her small intestines to her rectum. "And hopefully," Cercena says, "that will solve my issues." Samantha Cercena in December, 2021 with younger sister Alex, and a neighbor's children. courtesy Samantha Cerceda Yet her struggles with postviral gastroparesis will continue. "In most patients it goes away within the first year," she says. "But since mine has full GI system involvement, it is going to be a chronic lifelong issue." Cercena hopes to return to nursing school in the spring of 2023 and finish her training soon after, she says, "barring any other emergency situations." In the meantime, Cercena lives in the Columbus home where she grew up, spending time caring for her family's three dogs. Unable to walk long distances, Cercena uses a wheelchair on frequent walks with her mother around the neighborhood. "She's a saint for pushing that thing," says Cercena. "It's not light." Samantha Cercena, left. courtesy Samantha Cercena And every night around 10 p.m., Cercena sets up the TPN to deliver nutrition for the next 12 hours through an IV while she sleeps. Tejada is moved by Cercena's resilience. "From all of these experiences, she is going to be a great advocate for her patients," he says. "Having experienced so much and being on that side of the bed, it's going to be an amazing journey — and I'm excited to help along that way." OhioHealth made People's annual 100 Companies That Care list in 2021. 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