Theresa Durand never felt sick, but the Red Cross wanted her Covid antibodies
From the May, 2021 issue
Durand, who co-owns the Mix ladies' boutiques in Nickels Arcade and Ypsilanti, says she donated blood for the first time when "I was seventeen and there was a blood drive in my high school." She's been donating whole blood four times a year ever since.
Lately, though, the Red Cross has been asking her for a different kind of donation: Covid-19 "convalescent plasma." It's a way of sharing antibodies produced by her own immune system to help other patients. Robertson Davenport, a U-M professor of pathology and specialist in blood banking and transfusion medicine, emails that more than 500,000 transfusions of convalescent plasma have been performed nationally since the start of the pandemic.
Since March 2020, the Red Cross's Ann Arbor Donation Center has collected 1,549 units of convalescent plasma according to Todd Kulman, communications director for the American Red Cross Michigan Region.
Durand traces her own encounter with Covid to a buying trip she and her business partner, Bonnie Penet, took in early February 2020.
While they were there, "Bonnie had extreme fatigue and a cough like no other," Durand recalls. She felt fine herself, but when they returned, she insisted Penet "go to urgent care at IHA. They diagnosed her with double pneumonia and sent her home with a prescription for antibiotics. There was no Covid test. They didn't know what Covid was then."
By the time Penet went back two weeks later, they did. Her health unchanged, she was tested and confirmed to have Covid. Penet's husband was also seriously ill, and he tested positive, too.
When Michigan shut down last spring, Durand was at a loss for things to do, so she made an appointment to give blood. The Red Cross tests all donated blood for a variety of infections, including Covid.
"Most docs charge $50 to $100 to do a Covid test," says Kulman. "I encourage people to come to us. We do them for free."
Durand never did develop symptoms, but six weeks after donating,
she got an email informing her that she had high levels of the Covid antibodies in her blood and was eligible to donate convalescent plasma. She wasn't shocked by the news. "I was around Bonnie so much," she says.
Unlike whole-blood donation, plasma donation is a loop: the blood drawn is passed through a machine that separates the plasma from the red cells and platelets, which are then returned to the donor.
After a whole-blood donation, Durand usually revives herself with a packet of Lorna Doone cookies and a juice box. But after donating plasma, "I didn't feel light headed like I did with a regular donation," she says.
The Red Cross has notified her that her plasma has been utilized in hospitals in Chicago, Indiana, and Ohio. But according to an April New York Times article, hospitals are now pulling back from it, after studies found little benefit for severely ill patients.
"The effectiveness of convalescent plasma remains controversial," writes the U-M's Davenport. "I personally, like many other practitioners in the field, have seen individual cases of rapid improvement after transfusion. I have also seen cases where it appeared to have no effect." His reading of the clinical evidence is that it may be beneficial if given early in the infection and in sufficient amounts to patients at high risk of progression to severe disease.
Penet is back at work, though still experiencing lingering heart palpitations and fatigue. In April, Durand was giving her arm a rest, but planned to resume donating this month.
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