When Richard and Maria Wells both finally recovered from COVID-19, the Bala Cynwyd couple’s immediate thought was to contribute to the growing field of medical research currently being devoted to disease. They decided to donate their blood plasma to science, potentially helping people who test positive for COVID-19.
“It feels great,” Richard said about being able to donate.
In those who have recovered from the disease, their plasma contains antibodies, developed by the immune system, that helped them fight the infection.
While there is still much to know about the treatment of COVID-19, researchers believe that this plasma may be beneficial for patients whose immune systems have not yet learned to make such helpful antibodies. So they’re now using donated plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients both for research and in COVID-19 treatment, injecting it into patients in an effort to build antibodies to the virus that has ravaged the world.
“There is at least some very modest amount of data to suggest that convalescent plasma might help,” said Julie Katz Karp, director of transfusion medicine for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. But only further research will prove whether that’s true, which is why receiving donations is so important.
“For this moment in time, this might be one of the better things we have to offer,” which, admittedly, may not be much, but nonetheless has researchers excited “because you don’t have much else to go on,” Katz Karp said.
Richard Wells had the distinction of being the first recovered COVID-19 patient to donate plasma at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
“It required very little effort on my part,” he said. “I sat in a comfortable chair for about 35 to 40 minutes and gave some blood.”
Both Richard, 61, and Maria, 57, were feeling ill during the second week of March. On Friday the 13th, no less, both were weak with low-grade fevers. Their bodies ached, and each had a tremendous amount of fatigue.
Their doctor suggested they get tested at Lankenau Hospital, which they did that day. On March 18, Maria received her positive test result; Richard’s came the next day.
“Once the diagnosis was made, it was really a question of riding it out,” Richard said.
The couple didn’t leave their home for approximately three weeks, taking only Tylenol for their symptoms, and the first days were the worst. They were told if they had trouble breathing to return to the hospital, which, thankfully, wasn’t necessary. Still, simple tasks — even climbing just a few stairs — were extremely challenging.
“The fatigue was crippling. It was pure exhaustion. It was our bodies fighting something,” Maria said.
After about a week, both started to slowly regain some strength. By the end of three weeks, they were feeling well enough to donate their plasma to researchers.
Richard was approved for donation, but Maria didn’t clear the screening. Why? She had given birth to all three of the couple’s children.
“When a woman gives birth, her body potentially comes in contact with the fetus’ blood,” Maria said. If it does, her body creates an antibody called HLA.
“If a plasma donor has that antibody, it can actually be very dangerous for a patient to receive that plasma,” she said.
Jefferson told Maria that it would hold onto her donated blood anyway, for potential use in studying some other aspect of the disease.
“So it wasn’t all for naught,” said Maria, a fourth-grade teacher in the Lower Merion School District.
The couple’s message is one of hope to others who have contracted COVID-19.
“We were so well taken care of by our family, our friends, our neighbors, people from my class, people sending us notes and going to the store for us. We never had to leave our house,” Maria said. “We were so blessed to have so much support from the people around us.”
That’s why the couple is willing to do anything to help in this cause. Richard even plans to donate his plasma again (he must wait 28 days between donations).
For both Richard and Maria, no day is taken for granted.
“We have people who are close to us who have not survived the disease,” said Richard, director of corporate communications and government relations for Tower Health. “So we certainly understand the whole range of possible outcomes for this thing.”