First plasma donor participates in University of Iowa Health Care trials to help others recover from COVID-19

Vanesa Campoverde is the first patient to donate plasma at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics to help other Iowans who are COVID-19 positive.

Vanesa Campoverde wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a large needle inserted into her arm for a plasma donation, but she knew the end result would be worth it.

Campoverde, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in mid-March and has since recovered, was the first such patient to participate in one of a pair of University of Iowa studies looking at whether donated plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 can help those hospitalized with the disease recover faster.

Finding plasma donors from recovered COVID-19 patients is the first step that is required before patients hospitalized with the disease can be treated. The donated plasma contains antibodies produced as the patients were fighting the illness – antibodies doctors hope will help those hospitalized to recover faster.

“When Dr. (Michael) Knudson called me and asked if I’d be interested in participating in this study they were doing by donating plasma, I said ‘yes’ right away,” says Campoverde, 36, of Iowa City. “There is no cure for this so if I could help in any way someone who is critically ill, of course I’m going to do it.”

Who is eligible to donate and receive plasma

The new UI study is enrolling subjects who have recovered from COVID-19 and are willing to donate their plasma for transfusion of patients with severe COVID-19.  Patients eligible to receive the plasma are those hospitalized  with COVID-19 who provide consent to receive a plasma infusion.

The donors are people who have recovered from a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 and who have been symptom-free for at least two weeks. People who may have been infected but were not tested may be eligible but would need to be tested for antibodies first. In addition to these eligibility criteria, subjects go through the same screening process that is used for all donors of blood, platelets, or plasma.

The plasma donation process

Donating plasma is similar to donating platelets in that a needle is inserted into the arm and blood is drawn through a tube into an apheresis instrument – a machine used in plasma collection. With plasma donations, however, the machine separates the plasma from the cellular components of the blood which are returned into the body.

Michael Knudson, MD, PhD, medical director of the DeGowin Blood Bank and Donor Center and principal investigator of the convalescent plasma donor study, says plasma donated from one donor can help two to four people. Donors can donate plasma once every seven days. Additional information about the study can be obtained by emailing PathologyCP@healthcare.uiowa.edu.

The whole process takes about 90 minutes, Campoverde explains, although part of that is registering at the beginning and resting after the donation. The actual donation takes about 30-45 minutes.

“I was a little nervous at first, I’d never done anything like that before,” she says. “It wasn’t hard at all, and didn’t really take that long."

Campoverde’s personal experience with COVID-19

Campoverde, her husband, and their two children had traveled to Ecuador to visit family over spring break in March, but ended their trip early as travel bans started being put into place. They returned to Iowa City and within a few days she started feeling sick – fever, chills, fatigue.

“Just because of my travel history I thought it might be COVID-19, but I didn’t have the cough or the shortness of breath,” she says.

Still, she called her doctor at UI Hospitals & Clinics, and after her video visit was told to come in to be tested. Her tests came back positive and because her symptoms were light, she was sent home to self-isolate. She stayed isolated in her bedroom for 10 days.

She said the illness gave her false hope for early recovery.

“It was weird because you will be sick one day, and the next you’ll feel well – and then you feel really bad the next day again,” she recalls. “Every day is a different intensity.”

She spent a lot of time sleeping, she says – “I was very, very tired for the first few days” – but then would FaceTime with her kids and her husband, as well as family members in other parts of the world. She read the news for the first few days, but realized quickly it was too frightening – reading stories of patients who thought they had recovered only to get very sick and be hospitalized and placed on ventilators made her wonder if that would happen to her.

She stopped reading the news and didn’t go on social media.

Campoverde has been symptom-free for a little more than two weeks, which is why she was eligible for the UI “convalescent plasma” study. No one else in her home has shown any symptoms of the disease.

She hopes her plasma is able to help someone.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever find out if I was able to help someone, but I still feel good about it, that I could be helping someone not have to get really sick,” she says.

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