NEW ORLEANS — Of more than 1.5 million Americans who have tested positive for COVID-19, my experience was far from the most difficult or debilitating.
I never had to be rushed to the hospital, never needed equipment to help me breathe, never found myself isolated from my family.
But it was the scariest illness I’ve ever faced because the symptoms were so new and unpredictable, emerging and retreating in irregular waves. The fatigue was so all-encompassing, it was hard to know when I was improving and when I was getting worse.
That’s why, as soon as I had fully recovered, I focused on donating convalescent plasma. The Blood Center, a nonprofit blood bank that serves 50 hospitals across southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi, was the first organization in the area to collect plasma from people who had recovered from the coronavirus so hospitals could give their antibodies to patients with more severe cases of COVID-19.
“The evidence we have right now is that it appears to be very, very promising treatment,” said Dr. Tim Peterson, medical director of The Blood Center. “It appears to be able to either shorten the length of hospitalization and or decrease the need for ventilation.”
I was able to donate four 200-millileter units of plasma on May 7. I hope those units will help four COVID-19 patients fight off the virus. But even just easing the struggle for one of them would make my own month-long convalescence worthwhile.
It all started in late March, when I awoke with a fever and cough following several days of reporting on how local government was responding to the coronavirus threat at homeless camps, school lunch distribution sites and a rat-infested Bourbon Street.
I don’t know how or when I contracted the virus, but I knew I had it the moment I saw that fever. It wasn’t that it was so high – just 100.7 degrees at its worst. And it wasn’t that the cough was so bad – it was indistinguishable from a dry cough I get every spring from allergies.
But on March 26, I knew I had it, and it was the last time I felt certain about anything, until I was able to donate that plasma more than five weeks later.
I waited three hours in my car to get tested for the virus in the Lakefront Arena parking lot. That swab test may have been the most painful part of the whole experience. The jabbing in my left nostril even drew blood. Five days later the results came back from the lab. Just as I suspected, I was positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.
It seemed like a normal -- or even low-grade -- flu for the first week. But Day 10 began around 2:30 a.m., when I woke up clutching a pillow to my chest. Later, I told Campbell Robertson of The New York Times it felt like “an anvil sitting on my chest. Not a pain, not any kind of jabbing – just heavy.”
The pressure was accompanied by tingling in my fingers, and I thought I might be having a heart attack. I thought I was experiencing shortness of breath, a crucial coronavirus symptom. My wife and I got dressed and headed for the door to go to the hospital. The night before, I’d learned New Orleans Saints legend Tom Dempsey had died. I couldn’t stop thinking about how reports just a few days earlier had said Dempsey had recovered.
My wife sensed the shortness of breath was something other than COVID-19. She made me tea, had me sit and watch Peyton Manning’s ESPN series on 100 years of the NFL and monitored my breathing when I wasn’t so focused on it. Soon it became clear to both of us that I was having a panic attack, not a heart attack or any serious loss of lung function.
A month later, my comment about the anvil on my chest appeared in a New York Times headline, accompanied by an illustration by Thoka Maer depicting me sitting in bed, clutching the pillow to my chest while my wife calmed me down.
The recovery after that was very uneven – two steps forward, one step back -- and at times I felt like I would never be back to full strength. On Day 19, for example, I thought I was ready to get back to work, but woke up from a nap and couldn’t move a muscle. It felt like I was paralyzed for several minutes.
The Blood Center reached out to me April 16, after seeing my story online. At that point, the process for donating was more restrictive and less definitive than it is now.
I took three different tests to see if I had COVID-19 antibodies. All of them said I did. But none of them had been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
On April 30, I had to go to University Hospital to have a swab stuck up my nose – again -- to make sure I had totally shed the virus. A few days later, the government revised its guidelines and said it was no longer necessary to get a negative swab test to confirm the virus was gone. Anyone who had it and was symptom-free for two weeks was now assumed to have the antibodies.
Getting those tests and processes standardized will be important for assessing risk and protecting the public-at-large until a vaccine is available. But for now, the less restrictions to donating plasma, the better. When I donated on May 7, I was only the 12th person to do so through The Blood Center, and that was two weeks after Saints Coach Sean Payton had done it with full media coverage and much fanfare.
I asked Peterson why more people don’t donate their blood and its therapeutic components, like plasma and platelets. He said it’s simply not something people think about, or if they do, they think they don’t have time. The whole process – from the medical and background screening to the post-donation snack -- took about an hour at The Blood Center’s facility on Canal Street.
They drew my whole blood but separated out the plasma in a centrifuge and put the rest of the blood back in me, along with intravenous fluids. I felt a bit drained afterward, and I did have to take a 12-hour break from strenuous activity, but I’m looking forward to donating again in June.
I saw the shelves of donated blood at The Blood Center, and they’re dangerously understocked. COVID-19 has prevented blood drives and mobile blood banks just when the need for convalescent plasma is growing. A return to normal life also brings more need for whole-blood transfusions, for both elective and emergency surgeries.
“If you've never donated, please come in, give it a try,” Peterson said. “And if you're a regular donor, please come in and donate regularly. The blood we have on a shelf today is what's going to be available for the patient tomorrow morning.”