In the fight against COVID-19, vaccines remain top of the headlines, but it’s also important to remember that they are not the only tools being used in health care to fight the virus. In a series of stories last week, we focused on monoclonal antibody drugs that are keeping high-risk people who contract COVID-19 from having to be hospitalized.
In this story, we are focusing on another tool: convalescent plasma, which is also playing a role in helping COVID patients who are hospitalized to recover.
Paul Nielsen is a Colorado Springs resident, I first met in August 2020.
He was one of the first people in southern Colorado to be offered convalescent plasma when he was hospitalized with COVID in May.
Paul says that getting infusions of convalescent plasma made all the difference for him. “I’m really convinced that if my family had not brought me to the E.R. at UCHealth Memorial North Hospital, and I had not gotten that plasma, that is the night I probably would not have survived. All of a sudden, after a couple of units (of plasma) that somehow stabilized me enough, I didn't need to go on a ventilator that day, or the next day, and by about the third day, it was starting to turn around.”
Last month, Paul was given the chance to meet the two people who donated that potentially lifesaving gift he received. He met them at the Vitalant Blood Donation Center in Aurora. Paul says: “It's something that I was looking forward to for 10 months. When I first received the plasma one of my first thoughts was, ‘Wow, I'm so thankful for whoever donated this.’ I never imagined with all the patient privacy and bureaucracy in place I would ever be able to meet the person, or people who donated the plasma I received.”
Thanks to a lot of cooperative behind-the-scenes work from Vitalant and UCHealth, Paul was introduced to his donors.
One of them is Dr. Amos Bailey, a palliative care physician at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora and faculty member at the CU School of Medicine. Dr. Bailey says he believes he came into contact with the coronavirus in Breckenridge in March while on a ski trip. He has been on the frontlines of the pandemic and has seen firsthand the worst the virus can bring. “I spent a lot of time in the intensive care unit helping doctors and families make difficult decisions for those dying with COVID. It was scary because of having COVID myself. I knew from my medical work earlier in my career that plasma could be an impactful treatment, so as soon as I was able to donate plasma, I started donating every week for 10 weeks.”
Paul’s other donor was Dr. Tracee Metcalfe, a hospitalist in Vail who also contracted and recovered from COVID early in the pandemic. Dr. Metcalfe wasn’t able to make the trip to meet Paul in person but joined in on the reunion virtually over Zoom. “I felt happy that I could come back to work after recovering from COVID and take care of patients, because I wanted to help, and when the opportunity arose to donate my plasma, I was happy to do that.”
Paul says, “I was really surprised that both of them were physicians and that both came out of the initial outbreak; I hadn't thought about it or done the math, but that makes sense.”
Because of patient privacy laws that Paul referred to earlier, reunions like this between blood product donors and recipients are rare. Monica Lasarre, the blood bank manager with UCHealth Memorial Hospital, was happy to be at the reunion to be able to meet Paul, Dr. Amos and to see Dr. Metcalfe. “Paul is probably one of the first patients I've ever met from the work we do out of the blood bank at Memorial. We don't often get to see the patients that have gotten the products we've processed. Most of the time the products are dispensed to the nursing staff, and they take them to the patient. We send them out the door on a wing and a prayer, hoping it does some good. We don't often hear the outcomes of how patients have responded, so this is really cool to meet Paul and hear about his experience and how his life has been improved with convalescent plasma.”
As a COVID survivor, Paul hopes that as the vaccine continues to roll out, everyone can continue to do their part to contribute to herd immunity so life can return to something more normal. “It certainly feels like everyone has COVID fatigue and mask fatigue and are ready to be done with this. However, there are the variants out there that could still spread, and we could still see another big spike. We still need to stay vigilant until this is really over - if we want this to be over. So, still wear your mask and still do social distancing, still stay inside if you can, and I would like everyone to get one of the vaccines.”
As a COVID survivor, does Paul plan on getting a COVID vaccine? “I was talking with the research doctor at Vitalant (while I was there) and he was saying, ‘Have you gotten your vaccine yet?’ I said, ‘I still have antibodies, so do I need a vaccine? You tell me because I can't seem to find great information on that.’ He said, ‘The vaccine will give you a 100 times boost over the antibodies you have naturally.’ So even though I had a severe case and I have more antibodies than most people, that convinced me. As soon as it drops down in the spring so that my age group can get vaccinated, I'm going to get the vaccine.”
When I first met Paul in the summer of 2020, he was already several drafts into a book about his experience as the 741st COVID patient in El Paso County. Paul says that the project is almost ready to be published. He was just waiting for the reunion to write the final chapter.
“All along as soon as I knew there was going to be a possibility of meeting the plasma donor, I knew that would be the final chapter of the book. I have signed with the publisher I have interviewed and signed an editor, who has gone through and marked up the book like crazy, so it’s almost there.”
Paul has written and published many books based on his hands-on experience and knowledge as a database developer and as a trainer specializing in data architecture. While “COVID Case #741” isn’t about coding or data architecture, it’s still about sharing his personal experiences in detail - in a way that tells the story of what it was like to contract COVID and be hospitalized in the early stages of the pandemic.
Paul says, “That was part of the idea, for people to know what it was like to have it without getting it. If people get the book and enjoy it or get anything out of it, all the better, but reflecting more on it, I think the real reason - my heart reason for writing it - is for my great grandkids and great grandkids. I know in their history books it will say that there was a Spanish Flu in 1917, and then there was the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020, and there is more to the story than that one sentence - that's why I wrote the book.”
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