Left, Savannah-Zhané Jolley. Top right: Jolley and her mother, Louise. Bottom right: Jolley's celebrates getting an \"A\" on a research paper.
Left, Savannah-Zhané Jolley. Top right: Jolley and her mother, Louise. Bottom right: Jolley's celebrates getting an "A" on a research paper. (Images courtesy of Savannah-Zhané Jolley)

Class of 2021: A mysterious illness couldn’t derail Savannah-Zhané Jolley’s journey to a VCU degree

Headaches and memory loss nearly derailed her final years of school. But thanks to her mother, the Department of Political Science and her own perseverance, Jolley will graduate this month.

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It was during the second semester of Savannah-Zhané Jolley’s third year at VCU when the “horrendous” headaches started. Maybe it was just dehydration or too much stress from school, she thought.

But then her memory started acting strangely.

“People around me started to notice that I was forgetting a lot. I would just be talking and then all of a sudden what I was saying would just go away from me and I'd go, ‘Wait, what were we talking about?’ Just had no idea,” she said. “It started so subtly. It was quite insidious. I didn't even really notice at first.”

Soon, Jolley’s mysterious illness grew even worse. Speaking became a challenge. And then her ability to process information “took a massive hit.”

“Nothing made sense to me anymore,” said Jolley, a senior in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “My schoolwork for one. I couldn't do my schoolwork. I would sit there in class, thinking: What? I have no idea what you're saying. This makes no sense to me. Everything from class to just crossing the street became a huge challenge.”

Savannah-Zhané Jolley.
A mysterious illness that occurred during VCU student Savannah-Zhané Jolley's junior year affected her short-term memory, ability to process information and speak. (Courtesy of Savannah-Zhané Jolley)

Jolley knew she needed help. She and her mom, Louise, reached out to Department of Political Science academic advisers Nathan Bickett and Jennifer Clayton.

“I went to them pretty early on in 2019 because I knew I was going to need help with school,” Jolley said. “They were really patient in meeting with me in waiting for me to get the words out and find how to articulate myself. They're spectacular. They spoke on my behalf to my professors because I just kind of couldn’t. And they’d come back to me and be like, ‘Right, this is what they said, and this is what we can do.’ They were really the liaison between me and my professors. I owe a lot of my academic success to them.”

Bickett and Clayton helped arrange accommodations for Jolley, and her professors were completely understanding.

“All my professors were really great in working with me,” she said. “It's an extraordinary circumstance, but they were really wonderful. Obviously I still had to do some sort of work in order to complete the classes, though.”

She and her mother also still had to figure out what was behind this strange and awful illness.

“We started going to various doctors and they didn't have a clue,” Jolley said. “They all said it was migraines and that the memory loss and whatnot were symptoms of a migraine. But I knew it wasn't a migraine. We both knew it wasn't a migraine.”

Jolley’s doctor in Fredericksburg was stumped. She went in for a lumbar puncture after one doctor thought it might be a cerebrospinal fluid leak (it wasn’t). They visited a neurologist in Virginia Beach who ran her through a battery of tests, including “a ton” of MRIs and CTs, that confirmed the symptoms but couldn’t point to a cause. A neuropsychologist in Richmond did an evaluation, again confirming the symptoms but without a plan to treat them. She visited a neurology center at Johns Hopkins — even they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

Throughout the ordeal, which stretched into first the spring and then the summer of 2019, Jolley’s mother studied Jolley’s course materials herself, and then served as Jolley’s tutor.

“She would spoon feed the material to me in small bits that would help me learn it. Because just reading the textbook, I mean, it might as well have been alphabet soup or Latin. It just made no sense to me,” Jolley said. “My mom — well, she's the closest person to me anyways, but especially in that year — she knew all the little nuances of how my brain was changing and how things now made sense to me, so she was able to digest my schoolwork and then give it back to me in a way that made sense to me.”

Savannah-Zhané Jolley and her mother, Louise.
Savannah-Zhané Jolley and her mother, Louise. Jolley's mother tutored her and served as her advocate as they visited countless doctors for tests. "She refused to take 'I don't know' for an answer," Jolley said. (Courtesy of Savannah-Zhané Jolley)

Finally, in late summer, a clue emerged when Jolley visited a chiropractor to adjust her neck and help with her headaches. The chiropractor suggested taking a B12 supplement, which he said is good for cognitive function.

“I figured, it can’t hurt,” Jolley said. “So I started taking it and that was the end of August [2019]. By October, I was basically fine. I was basically back to normal.”

Still, the illness remained a puzzle. The answer wasn’t discovered until Jolley was hospitalized for two weeks in November for a rare and abnormal case of pancreatitis, brought about by an infection in her stomach of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori.

As it turns out, Jolley’s mother figured out that H. pylori can prevent the absorption of B12 and a B12 deficiency can lead to cognitive impairments, such as having difficulty processing information and short-term memory loss.

“I had this bacteria the entire time and that’s what led to a B12 deficiency and that’s what kicked all this off at the beginning of 2019,” said Jolley, who is continuing to take B12 supplements and today is symptom-free. “We didn’t figure it out until the end of November.”

Bickett and Clayton said Jolley’s perseverance on her path to graduation despite unimaginable heath challenges was an inspiration, as was her mother’s support.

“Savannah-Zhané has always radiated with alacrity, kindness, and positivity — even while navigating daunting and unknown medical conditions,” Bickett said. “I will never forget Savannah-Zhane's mother's care and tireless dedication to her daughter throughout their exhausting medical odyssey. Savannah-Zhané's mother dutifully scribbled every word and idea Jen and I uttered in our group advising sessions and her perspective was integral to our strategizing and planning for Savannah's success.”

Clayton added that it was a team effort in working with Jolley and her mother.

“It was such an extreme situation and we were just trying to figure out what we could do to help them through it on our end,” she said. “Watching the two of them together as they struggled through this was really something. They were so close, so determined, and the care and love between them really showed. I am just so happy that she is better after such a scary and painful ordeal.”

While her health challenges may have defined the last stretch of her time at VCU, one of Jolley’s favorite moments as a political science major came when she was a sophomore and had to write her first “big kid” research paper on the Rwandan genocide for a Genocide and Human Rights course taught by professor Herbert Hirsch, Ph.D., who passed away in early 2019.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I'll be totally honest with you. I mean, I’ll toot my own horn. I’m a good writer. But I was just hoping the research side was good enough.”

Hirsch asked his students to turn in their papers in-person. When Jolley dropped hers off, he asked her to sit down while he read it.

Jolley with her paper on the Rwandan genocide.
Jolley with her paper on the Rwandan genocide for her Genocide and Human Rights class taught by the late political science professor Herbert Hirsch. (Courtesy of Savannah-Zhané Jolley)

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, like, this is going to be so embarrassing. It's going to be so terrible and he's going to say it to my face,’” she said. “So I sat down and he's reading it and he's reading it. It was like the fastest read I'd ever seen in my life. I was panicking the whole time. And he pulls out this red pen and I was like, ‘Okay, oh God, here we go. And with this big fat red pen, he writes, right over the front, Very good! A! God, I honestly could have cried.”

Hirsch went on to praise the paper and asked if she was a senior.

“‘No, I'm a sophomore,’ I told him. ‘He says: 'You write better than some of my seniors.' I was like, hell yeah!” she said. “Needless to say, I ran home after that meeting. I was honestly so proud of myself, I took a selfie with the paper and sent it to everyone.”

That paper went on to be published in the department’s Ramerican Political Science Review journal.

“Hirsch really stands out to me because he showed me what political science is and what political science can do,” she said. “But he gave me confidence as a political scientist and in my own intellect.”

Jolley, who moved to Scotland and has been finishing her final semester virtually, is currently working at a nonprofit organization. When asked about her career goals, she said she was keeping her options open.

“I don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Does anybody? I just know what I’m interested in and what I like. Whatever I do, I know it’ll be related to my three passions in life: helping others, writing and research.”

Jolley added that she wanted to specifically thank her loved ones on her journey, including her partner Chukuwemeka; her grandparents, “The Jays,” George and Alice; her brother Theo; and her dad, Will.

And, of course, her mother.