Local hospital nurse goes beyond her frontline hero role to donate convalescent plasma
By Chuck Gibson
LOVELAND, OH (November 25, 2020) – Emily was already a hero serving on the frontlines of the current pandemic crisis as a nurse in a local area hospital.
(Note: To protect issues of privacy, we are not identifying Emily by her full name, or the hospital where she is employed.)
She was caring for COVID-19 patients in the ICU at the hospital where she works in the early days, weeks and months of the pandemic crisis. Then she got sick, real sick, tested positive for COVID, was isolated in quarantine for two weeks, recovered, became symptom free, returned to work in the hospital and then. . . Well, that’s when she decided to give back by donating her convalescent plasma to help other COVID-19 patients. Here’s her story:
Emily’s story begins near the end of June. In Ohio, the “Stay at Home” order was easing up, businesses were opening back up, and restaurants were again open to serve people. Like many others around her, she went out to eat in a restaurant. It was the first time since January she’d been out. Gym’s had opened and she worked out at the her local community recreation center. Emily was still working shifts at the hospital wearing all the PPE required by safety protocols put in place during the pandemic.
“I really hadn’t seen a lot of friends,” said Emily. “Working in a hospital, I tried to be cautious with everybody. I felt like I had the greatest potential to spread COVID to anyone.”
As things eased up through June, Emily went to a restaurant, the gym, the grocery and even attended a birthday with friends. They were all celebrating their 30th during 2020. They ate outside, stayed socially distant and wore masks.
“It was nice to feel like I was getting back together with friends,” Emily recalled.
She had to work a shift at the hospital the next day, but a friend invited her to attend a softball game that evening. Emily went to the game, even went out with them after the game. Again, they sat outside, stayed distant and wore masks. The next morning, she awoke with a “terrible migraine” headache. She didn’t drink enough the night before to blame the headache on a hangover. The migraine persisted for three days, a cough developed and then one night she had chills –the sweaty, but cold kind of chills.
“This is not good, I have to go get tested,” Emily recalled thinking at the time. I was nervous. I had a wet, productive cough, ongoing migraine and chills.”
It was bad. Emily did not feel comfortable going to be tested at the hospital where she worked. Several employees told her ‘if you feel like you have symptoms, they’re (the hospital) going to blow you off. They’re not going to test you.’ It was not a good feeling for someone working at a hospital. She did not want to mess up. She needed to get tested. She needed to know so she could know what to do.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” said Emily. “That was hard for me.”
Her parents told her Jewish Hospital was having a drive-up testing, no insurance needed (though Emily was, and is insured), no appointment needed; just drive up and show your driver’s license. It was open the next morning at 8 a.m..
“I was there in car, in line at 8:15 already 60 cars deep,” she said. “As I sat in car inching forward, 180 more cars came. It was a lot of people in line.”
The test was an oral swab taken for the “Rapid PCR” test method taken on July 1. Fortunately, Emily was not scheduled to work at the hospital the next couple days. She grew lethargic and tired. This is a healthy 30 year old nurse who was training for the Flying Pig Marathon; running 10-12 miles a day. She had good stamina. Despite chills, lethargy, and fatigue, Emily worked her scheduled shift at the hospital on July 4th. She had a new job with a new boss at the hospital and did not want to call-off sick on her first shift on the Fourth of July holiday.
Around mid-afternoon on July 5th, Emily received a call from Hamilton County Public Health notifying her she was positive for COVID-19.
“Lord Chuck, I got put in contact with a contact tracer,” Emily exclaimed. “Let me tell you. She called, checking in, every day during quarantine.”
The contact tracer asked Emily to account for every place and everyone she’d seen for the last 10 days. She had to tell her mom and dad because she had dinner with them. She had to tell her friends. They had not been hugging and shaking hands, but they had eaten buffet-style food sharing serving utensils.
“I was embarrassed Chuck,” she told me.
For months before that, since January, it was Zoom calls, but those recent weeks in June, everything and everyone had eased up. Not that her friends were nervous around her, but they did say if anyone was going to get it, it would be Emily, and they were careful around her.
“It’s been a horrible feeling,” Emily said. “I had to carry that around with me since February.”
“Yet, you are a hero,” I told Emily during the interview.
“Thank you,” she responded simply. “It took me a while to get over the guilty embarrassed feeling.”
On top of that, Emily was especially sick throughout the first week of her quarantine. The migraine – a constant dull headache – stuck with her the whole time. One night, she had an hour of just shaking with three blankets on top of her, a wet cough, and shortness of breath. She described the fatigue as overwhelming; literally sleeping 18 hours a day and unable to even sip water because it gave her the dry heaves.
“It’s scary to go from running 10 and 12 miles, to be tired walking from the couch to the bathroom,” said Emily. “Symptoms stayed intense through July 12, but I felt better the second week. I started to drink watered-down Gatorade. I was able to keep ice cream down.”
Her mom dropped Gatorade off on her porch wearing an N-95 mask and Emily, with her N-95 mask on, came out. They visited with mom out at the car and Emily on her porch. Mom brought over peach ice cream and a peach shake. From 12 feet apart, they shared peach shakes from UDF.
“I recommend Gatorade for anybody who is sick,” Emily said.
Finally, Emily went back to work. She paid close attention to any headache or any symptom. There was no guarantee she wouldn’t get sick again. The first day back, still feeling weak and fatigued, Emily arrived at 6:20 a.m. She was given a new nurse to train, an orientee. Not exactly what she was hoping for, but it turned out to be what her mom calls a “Holy Spirit” moment.
“She was a second person to help me with patients,” Emily explained. “It ended up being beneficial.”
The big news came later that day. Emily heard from another hospital worker 30 members of the hospital staff working on the same floor where she worked before testing positive for COVID herself all got sick with COVID. The floor had to be shut down. Patients were transferred to another floor. That floor saw 15 members of the staff get sick, patients too. Turned out, it all traced back to a pot-luck dish brought in by a staff member. It was a pot-luck dish from another gathering the staff member had attended elsewhere.
“That’s 100-percent how I got sick,” said Emily.
Then she was inspired. Being a nurse, caring for COVID patients, she knew this pandemic was not something anybody in health care ever thought they would be doing. Emily says working through a pandemic is not something anyone imagined they would be working through eight months earlier. But that is exactly what we are all doing.
“We’re all problem-solving it together; going through ups and downs,” she said. “That’s what science is. You have to keep trying different things to see what works. Everybody at the hospital is working through it together for the first time.”
We call them heroes; those front line doctors and nurses, like Emily, working with the COVID patients; sometimes in isolation. Then came convalescent plasma treatments. Emily cared for patients who received the infusion.
“A lot of times I didn’t get to see patients through the process,” Emily explained. “Through 1 to 3 shifts, they went from upside down on the hospital bed, to keep pressure off their lungs, to sitting up in a chair. It was interesting to be part of it.”
It had an impact. Seeing patients improve after the convalescent plasma treatment inspired Emily to take the next step. She had recovered from COVID-19, was symptom free, and potentially eligible to donate her convalescent plasma. Her parents, mom a nurse, dad a firefighter, had always taught: you keep giving back to the community.
“I felt I had the opportunity to do something positive,” said Emily. “Not everybody is going to donate plasma. I just knew, for me, it was a way I could give back.”
Emily contacted Hoxworth Blood Centers right away. It was too early. They told her she had to be symptom free for 28 days. She says she might have been a bit of a pest to Hoxworth because she was so eager to donate. She filled out the specific online form required – twice! Finally, she got the call. She was symptom free for 28 days and an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for convalescent plasma treatments had just been announced by the FDA. All systems were go for more convalescent plasma donors according to Hoxworth Blood Center Director of Medicine, Dr. David Oh.
“The EUA approved use of convalescent plasma,” said Oh. “There may be more of a need than ever with the EUA. It is very possible donors will increase as more physicians can prescribe convalescent plasma for COVID patients.”
There is still more data needed, but enough evidence from the Mayo Clinic study of 70,000 infused persons to say the infusion of convalescent plasma is safe and showing it is likely beneficial. Local hospitals had protocols in place to continue collecting data. The stage was set for Emily to donate her convalescent plasma. She made her first donation on Monday, August 24. She learned she could do it four times in a one month span.
“It’s a full circle moment,” Emily said. “Proud, I just feel proud. I want to feel like I’m making an impact. I’d been caring, but wanted to make a whole different kind of impact. Everybody wants to get back to their lives. I can make a small impact to help us get back to that.”
Emily made the first convalescent plasma donation at the University of Cincinnati Hoxworth center. Dr. Oh was there and saw her.
“That’s fabulous,” Oh said about Emily being a nurse and a convalescent plasma donor. “That’s great!”
The use of convalescent plasma has increased. Just this week, Hoxworth made an Emergency Plea for convalescent plasma donors to meet higher demand. Emily made donations all four consecutive weeks beginning with that first donation August 24 and ending with a donation on September 14. Following her first donation, she was working a shift at the hospital when a charge nurse said ‘one of your patients could be getting your plasma right now.’ It gave her a little extra drive to help patients. Emily has continued to donate once monthly ever since because her COVID antibodies have remained high.
This is real,” Emily said. “Just maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. There is a little bit of hope. I saw hope for the patients.”
On this Thanksgiving Day 2020, I see a SUPER HERO
giving hope to others.
Thank you, Emily, for taking the next step going beyond your frontline hero work with COVID patients. Thank you for giving.
EMILY, YOU ARE A SUPER HERO! HAVE A HAPPY THANKSGIVING!