Lawton Davis caught COVID-19 in mid-March, making him one of the first New Mexicans to get the disease.
He then became likely the first New Mexican to donate his plasma so it could be used to try to help patients throughout the state.
Several hospitals in the state have in recent weeks started using convalescent plasma to try to treat COVID patients. Doctors infuse plasma from recovered COVID patients into ones who are fighting the disease in hopes that antibodies from the former patient will help the current patient fight the virus, said Dr. Chakri Gavva, medical director of the blood bank for Presbyterian Healthcare Services.
Gavva said it’s too soon to say how effective the therapy has been. But nationwide, researchers have reported that initial findings give cause for optimism, according to a report last week by the Los Angeles Times.
And that optimism is causing local health officials to encourage people who have recovered from COVID-19 to come forward and donate their plasma in an effort to help people with the disease that has sickened thousands and killed 270 across the state.
Heeded the call
After suffering for about a month, which included a stint in a hospital, Davis, 72, read about the plasma therapy in The Wall Street Journal and wanted to know whether he could donate. He ultimately linked up with a network of TriCore Reference Laboratories, Vitalent blood center and health systems throughout the state that are working together to get the proper authorizations and use the experimental treatment.
Davis chose to donate because he knew the health care workers who tended to him when he was gravely ill are at risk of becoming infected.
“Anybody that can do it (donate plasma) really should do it, because it helps people who are pretty ill,” Davis told the Journal. “I was in the hospital for a couple days when I was at my sickest. Being in isolation in the hospital and seeing what the doctors, the nurses and the medical techs are going through … how could I not go through with this?”
Davis is a longtime Albuquerque resident. He graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1971 and was in the car business for more than 40 years, including as the owner of Galles & Davis Motor Co.
A family vacation to Paris in mid-March was cut short over concerns about the pandemic. Davis said it’s likely he caught the virus March 13 when traveling back home.
Davis’ wife is also believed to have had the virus, but she had mild symptoms.
The disease hurts some worse than others. Davis said he had the “world’s worst headache,” sinus pain, lung and chest inflammation and gastrointestinal and urinary tract pain that left him hospitalized for several days.
It took him about a month to recover. Fatigue lingered for weeks. He said he slept 15 to 18 hours a day and a simple task like taking out the trash would leave him exhausted.
“People ask what it’s like, and I tell them, ‘We’ve all had the flu. Take the worst case of flu you ever had and multiply it by 10,'” Davis said. “I have acquaintances who think it’s not a big deal and nothing to worry about. It’s a big deal. If you think it’s nothing to worry about, you’re an idiot.”
Davis has donated one batch of 900 milliliters of plasma – which he was told was used on four patients. He’s scheduled to make at least five more donations. He said he’ll keep making trips to the blood bank as long as he’s needed.
Plasma stays in NM
Plasma donated by Davis and other New Mexicans will stay in the state where different hospitals can access it, said Dr. Michael Crossey, the CEO of TriCore Reference Laboratories.
TriCore performs lab work for many hospitals statewide, including UNM Hospital, Presbyterian and the Lovelace Health System. The lab has reached out to patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 to see if they are willing to donate their plasma.
Donors need to be symptom-free for at least 28 days and not have other disqualifying health conditions. So far, the patients have been receptive, Crossey said.
As of Friday, about 50 people had signed up to donate. Vitalent had taken plasma from about 30 of those, and about 25% of them said they would make additional donations, according to a TriCore spokeswoman.
“Of all the COVID craziness, this has been a real upside. How quickly (the convalescent plasma treatment) went through (approval), how quickly the different health systems came together, how positively it was received by patients who were willing to donate,” Crossey said. “It’s a bright spot in all this craziness.”
More donors needed
There are studies going on all over the world to see how the therapy can help patients and which patients should receive it, Gavva said. The treatment has been used to help patients with other viral infections for many years.
At Presbyterian, the hospital is giving the treatment to patients who meet guidelines set in a Mayo Clinic study that the hospital is participating in. So it’s going to people who are hospitalized with severe or life-threatening illness or those who have a higher risk of progressing to serious illness, Gavva said.
Those patients are likely receiving other treatments as physicians try to figure out how best to battle the disease. So even if a patient improves, it can be difficult to pin down why, he said.
Lovelace Health System, University of New Mexico Hospital and other hospitals in New Mexico have also infused COVID patients with convalescent plasma, health officials said.
While the true benefits haven’t been proved, initial results from a nationwide clinical trial showed that the therapy on severely ill patients didn’t increase their risk of dying of the disease and suggested the treatment could save lives, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We definitely need donors,” Gavva said. “We just need to recruit more donors and have New Mexicans helping other New Mexicans.”