From the time that I realized I would have a very mild case of COVID-19, I knew that I wanted to donate plasma for those with more serious symptoms. I wasn’t sure how to go about it, but shortly after my quarantine I saw a donor recruitment post on Facebook from MU Health Care. I waited the requisite fourteen days after COVID-like symptoms and submitted an application on Friday, July 31.
A program volunteer left me a voice mail on Tuesday, August 11. We played phone tag for a couple of days, finally connecting on Friday, August 14. She asked me a series of questions about general health, travel, vaccinations, and whether or not I had a subsequent negative COVID test. I met basic donor qualifications, and had two options: taking another test and waiting two weeks following a negative result, or waiting six weeks from my final COVID symptom. By this time, waiting out the six weeks would happen sooner than going through the testing procedure, so we decided that she would submit my application on Friday, August 28.
All of this waiting was so frustrating! It seemed like the sooner I could start donating the better, and I could very nearly visualize my antibody levels dropping. But as in enduring quarantine, there was nothing to do but wait. On Sunday, August 30 I received a call from Red Cross. We went through the same series of questions as the initial call from MU Health. Then I was finally (!) accepted as a donor and given an appointment for Tuesday, September 8 at 10:00.
I was instructed to drink an extra 16 ounces of water, have something to eat about an hour before donating, and complete a “Rapid Pass” questionnaire before coming into the donation center, which turned out to be a third round of questions I had already answered, with some extras about medications, pregnancies, and past travel. I was careful to save the Rapid Pass QR code to my phone so that I wouldn’t have to repeat the process at the donation center.
I spent a couple of hours at work. Because I had eaten a bigger-than-usual breakfast, I had to make a choice between the extra pint of water and eating something mid-morning. I opted for the water.
Once at the donation center, I had my temperature taken and was directed to a waiting area. After a few minutes I was called back to an intake room with a tech named Eric. I had to identify myself by showing the email confirming the appointment. (I wish I had printed it out, because it took a while to find on my new phone and then I had to search again for the QR code.) He asked me a few of the Rapid Pass questions to be sure that I understood them. Finally I got stuck for an iron level and once I passed that we moved to the donation room.
I had a couple of pleasant surprises—first, I thought that there were two needles involved—one to take the whole blood and another to return the red blood cells. But there was only one. Eric gave me a rubber bulb and instructed me to squeeze when it was firm (that’s when whole blood is flowing out) and relax when it was flat (that’s when red blood cells and saline are being returned). Second, the e-mail stated that a donor can expect to spend up to 2-3 hours in the chair, but it was only about an hour for me. The amount of plasma that a person can donate is based on height and weight, and I was able to donate 450ml. Eric said that would provide 12-15 treatments for seriously ill COVID patients.
I was provided with a warm blanket because donors tend to chill as the room temperature saline and slightly cooled red blood cells are returned. I set off an equipment alarm fairly often. Eric explained that I have smaller veins and while that’s not a real problem, I can’t pump as quickly as the machine is calibrated for. After the last of my red cells were returned, I was asked to remain in the canteen and have something to eat and drink. Being gluten-free is not an asset in the Red Cross canteen as it limited my choices to fruit gummies or raisins. But I had a Clif bar in my bag and with that and a box of juice I was good to go.
At checkout the scheduler told me that people are able to donate plasma as often as once per week, but their computer system requires four-week intervals and there is currently no way to override that. At the time I found that a wee bit ridiculous (after all, those antibodies are decreasing by the day!), but after going to bed early four days in a row, I could see some wisdom in not donating weekly. I’m next scheduled to donate on October 6, but I don’t know whether I will have sufficient antibodies after that.
Either way, I’m happy to have done it. It has given me a sense of purpose in a chaotic world. I can honestly report that it is not an arduous process, other than the waiting! While my overall prayer is that everyone who reads this remains COVID-free, if someone finds themself in a position to donate convalescent plasma, I recommend it.
Edited 09/23/20 to add: A couple of days ago, I received a letter from the Red Cross indicating that I carry the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) antibody. Female donors who have been pregnant are more likely than others to have HLA antibodies in their plasma. There is a link between HLA antibodies and Transfusion-Related Acute Lung Injury (TRALI), a rare but serious complication of blood transfusions. I am still eligible to donate whole blood or red blood cells, but not plasma or platelets. This is a very disheartening development as I was hoping that convalescent plasma donation would be the one positive from having had COVID.