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‘The story is still telling itself’: La Jolla filmmaker helps spread COVID-19 treatment information

Adam Franci Raby (far right) and his team featured people in El Centro about a fast-working treatment for COVID-19.
Adam Francis Raby (far right) and his team featured people in El Centro to help inform the community about a fast-working treatment for COVID-19.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla filmmaker Adam Francis Raby is passionate about telling others’ stories, and his latest work has a purpose beyond that. It helped those without access to medical treatment obtain medicine needed to fight off COVID-19 quickly.

Raby and Chula Vista resident and film director Jose Valdez, with whom Raby often partners, documented the stories of people who needed treatment for COVID-19 in an Imperial County community hit hard by the pandemic.

Adam Francis Raby (left) and Jose Valdez worked to spread information about COVID-19 treatment to those who needed it.
(Courtesy)

Raby and Valdez teamed up to create a public information campaign in El Centro at the behest of Empowering a Billion Women, an organization started to help women grow ventures, said EBW founder and Chief Executive Ingrid Vanderveldt.

The project entailed following patients and health care providers as the city rolled out monoclonal antibody, or MAB, treatment and informing other potential COVID-19 patients about the treatment.

“It’s the same antibody that [former] President [Donald] Trump took when he was diagnosed with [COVID-19],” Raby said. “Two days later, he’s back in the White House. It can lower up to 90 percent of the effects of COVID-19 if you get it early.”

“We provided the education factor,” Valdez said, “telling people the story of what is happening on the ground in … a very special place.”

And as “80 percent of health care decisions are made by women,” Raby said, the campaign was produced to spread “the power of the natural rhythms of communication between women.”

“It’s the perfect case study for everything that we teach other women,” Vanderveldt said. “We were uniquely positioned to help.”

The public information campaign falls under EBW’s SHEconomy Project, a movement aimed at creating more social, health and economic (s-h-e) impacts for women.

“Word got around town that a documentary was being filmed on all of this, which ... we know helped lead to people learning and knowing about the MAB center,” Vanderveldt said.

Raby and Valdez filmed interviews at hospitals and clinics, creating videos, podcasts, billboards and print materials in English and Spanish.

To view videos and other information about the El Centro project, visit sheconomyproject.com/el-centro.

Vanderveldt met Raby at a 2019 film screening and tapped him and Valdez for the information project because they “don’t do the work for the money, they do it for the impact,” she said. “They really recognize the empowerment of women. We always say at EBW that we’re never going to elevate to our fullest potential if we’re not collaborating with the guys.”

Through the interviews, Raby and Valdez helped spread the message that “if you meet certain pre-existing conditions, you could get the MAB treatment for free,” Raby said. “The whole idea is to lower the amount of beds [in use] in the hospital.”

El Centro, an area that has among the highest positive coronavirus test rates in the country, has just 11 beds in the intensive care unit at El Centro Regional Medical Center, Raby said. “At one particular time, it was servicing 60 people, and the majority of those people were in tents in the parking lot.”

El Centro “asked for help for several reasons,” he said. “One is it’s an area that is impoverished, it’s an area that doesn’t have an abundance of hospital beds [or] primary care physicians.”

The mostly Spanish-speaking city, Raby said, doesn’t have much access to health-related information, especially concerning COVID-19. “These people were afraid to go get tested when they got sick, for several reasons,” he said, citing their immigration status or the fear of losing their jobs if they were sent home from work.

“This community got knocked to its knees, and they needed someone to help them get up,” Raby said.

The campaign came together quickly. EBW approached Raby on Dec. 31; Raby and Valdez assembled their team and were in El Centro filming by Jan. 4, wrapping Jan. 9.

“We were baking a pie as we were getting the ingredients,” Valdez said, “curating everything on the fly, collaborating with the hospital and EBW. We really pulled off a miracle.”

Getting the information out as soon as possible was critical, Valdez said. There was “a level of confusion” among people interviewed, he said. When asked what they would do if they felt ill, many said “Stay home, I guess.”

The project worked, Vanderveldt said. Of the first 133 patients to be treated — all of whom were at high risk of severe reaction to the virus — only six needed to be treated later in an ICU, she said.

El Centro Regional Medical Center went from 61 COVID-19 patients Jan. 21 to 45 on Jan. 26, “evidence that the MAB treatments are helping fight the surge,” Vanderveldt said.

The information campaign dovetailed with Raby and Valdez’s penchant for storytelling, which Raby said is a form of medicine — “the light and dark of experience. It’s how we connect with each other.”

“I look for the spiritual investment,” Valdez said. “I need my crew members to be emotionally invested in the project, because that’s where we can give to the project with our hearts. That’s why I’m in this business. I’m here for the human experience, for creating change, for helping people.

“We help people tell their stories in the most authentic way possible.”

Raby said one woman interviewed later told an employee who felt sick about the monoclonal antibody treatment; the employee received the treatment two hours later. “Storytelling … saved her life,” Raby said.

EBW is working to implement a similar project in communities across the country.

“We have already galvanized in 34 other cities,” Vanderveldt said, with “over 90,000 doctors who have offered their services to help. And we’ve developed the media assets that can roll across the United States.”

“The story is still telling itself,” Raby said, adding that he’s ready to go back to El Centro to see where it goes next. “This community is not going to let go of hope.”

To donate to EBW’s foundation to help keep the project going, visit covidxnow.org.