ROME, Ga. - It was an emotional moment on the night of April 9 inside the ICU at Floyd Medical Center.
As part of a Mayo Clinic study, two critically-ill COVID-19 patients at the Rome, Georgia hospital were given plasma collected from a survivor of the virus.
Dr. Sheila Bennett, DPN, Floyd Medical Center's executive vice president and chief of patient services, says they had reached out to the patients' families to ask permission to try this experimental treatment designed to help them fight off the virus.
"The first family said yes immediately," Bennett says. "The other family said they would think about it, and they called us back shortly and said, 'Yes, we want to participate, as well.'"
The idea of testing convalescent or survivor plasma at Floyd Medical came from Rome radiologist Dr. Matt McClain, who has been researching the treatment for months.
"I think they were a little surprised at first that a radiologist came to them with this plan, but that's okay," McClain says. "They did get down to business pretty quickly."
Doctors have been using convalescent plasma for more than 100 years, to help patients trying to fight off the Spanish flu, measles, polio, and even Ebola.
Here's how it works: when we are infected with a virus-like COVID-19, our immune system produces antibodies, or tiny proteins, to neutralize the virus.
Our plasma is rich in those antibodies.
So, researchers believe, plasma collected from survivors can help the immune systems of severely ill patients mount a better defense against this new coronavirus.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the emergency use of convalescent plasma in patients with moderate to severe COVID-19.
To help Floyd Medical Center test the treatment, McClain set up a nonprofit, the Plasma Therapy Corporation, to recruit COVID-19 survivors, collect their plasma, and then deliver it to hospitals.
Students from the Medical College of Georgia are helping with the project, working with the local public health department to find and recruit survivors.
McClain says most of the 20 to 30 survivors the students have contacted have agreed to donate their plasma, which is a process similar to donating blood.
"People have also been contacting us through our website, www.plasmatx.org. I've actually had folks reach out to us from all around the state."
McClain also wants to talk to other physicians interested in starting a similar plasma collection service in their community.
At Floyd Medical, where a total of six patients have been given survivor plasma in the last week, McClain says it's too early to say if the transfusions are helping. He may have a better idea in a week.
But blood tests show their inflammation levels seem to be dropping, he adds.
"We're also seeing a decrease need for oxygen, and some of the patients have experienced a decreased need for mechanical ventilation," McClain says.
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You can read more about the nationwide grassroots effort to collect and test survivor plasma at www.covidplasma.org.
McClain says they're cautiously optimistic about the treatment.
And Sheila Bennett says they're grateful for the survivors who are now ready to pay it forward.
"That is an emotional moment," Bennett says. "Because, finally, you're in a place where you can give back, and you want to help others."
McClain says they've heard from people who think they may have had COVID-19 in the last few months, but have never been tested for the virus.
He says they do not have an easily accessible way to test them to confirm exposure to the virus.
But, McClain says, scientists are developing antibody tests that can do that.
He says they may need much more plasma in the fall and winter, if the U.S. is hit with another wave of this novel coronavirus.