The infusion of antibody rich plasma into critically-ill COVID-19 patients is giving hope around the world while a vaccine for the disease is still several months away.
Here in the Philippines, two hospitals have started the convalescent plasma therapy, while other hospitals have inquired about their protocols, with the hope of starting treatments on their own.
As of April 15, the St. Luke’s Medical Center has had its eighth infusion of convalescent plasma. Its first recipient had the infusion last Saturday immediately after the plasma was drawn from the donor. The plasma is rich with antibodies from patients who successfully fought the disease. These same antibodies are seen to help arm those who are yet grappling with the virus.
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The Philippine General Hospital on the other hand has had 10 donors with three additional COVID-19 survivors donating their plasma yesterday. So far three critical patients at PGH have been infused with the life-saving blood donation.
Bridge to a cure
One of St Luke’s early donors was OB-Gynecologist Jen Aranzamendez whose plasma donation last Tuesday, April 14, was transfused right away to a waiting patient severely ill with COVID-19.
Hematologist Francisco Lopez who supervised the donation is cautiously optimistic about convalescent therapy which has been tried successfully in China, the United States, and South Korea. “Some [patients] showed improvement in the chest x-ray findings and less oxygen requirement and decrease in the inflammation markers,” Lopez told ANCX. “But again we need at least a week [to be able to tell conclusively if] all patients [would tolerate] the infusion well.”
In South Korea, two elderly South Korean coronavirus patients recovered from severe pneumonia after being treated with plasma. Meanwhile, in the US, the FDA issued guidelines on convalescent plasma therapy on April 13, paving the way for its use by hospitals.
The plasma therapy is seen as a “bridge” while the vaccine is still in development.
Dr. Aranzamendez, an OB-GYN who holds clinic at St. Luke’s Medical Center and is also Department Chair of OB-GYN at the Quirino Memorial Medical Center, a public hospital, relates her experience. “It was good. I’m a doctor but I am afraid of needles. When I was admitted I had a lot of blood extractions so I got used to it,” she says. “It was painless and all throughout the procedure which was less than an hour, I hardly noticed when it was over.” Aranzamendez is still in her 14-day quarantine period after being discharged from the hospital. She was one of those who succumbed during the first wave of the virus in the Philippines.
Even while confined, Dr. Aranzamendez says she heard about the call for donations. With cases reaching almost the 5,000 mark, she felt the need to do something. “I already asked the doctors the process on how to donate. They would only call you if you have a type specific blood for the recipient,” she says. “When I was called I didn’t have any qualms anymore because I could relate to the patient who’s needing the blood because I’ve been there.” She is also mindful of the ordeal relatives are undergoing while their loved ones are isolated in the ICU. “It’s not only the patient but also the relatives who are standing by for the blood waiting for any improvement on their patients. I decided to go right away. “
She shares her frustration at being infected early and being a doctor, she felt she wanted to do more. “People started calling you a superhero. Actually I was disappointed when I got the sickness because I couldn’t help. I was infected early during the crisis,” the recovered physician says. “And I started thinking maybe this is God’s plan for me I could help more after this. There really is someone up there who is planning everything. That’s how I see it now.”
One of the recipients of the plasma donation at the PGH was former Senator and DAR Secretary Heherson Alvarez, who is critically ill with the disease. His daughter Xilca made the call for the plasma donations on social media and is now a veritable “hotline” for the donations, she tells ANCX.
The elder Alvarez was infused with the plasma Tuesday, April 14 and Xilca is relieved that “there have been no allergic reactions, though he still has to be monitored closely for the next 48 hours.” These days, Xilca is busy fielding calls and messages connecting donors and families who are in dire need of the potentially life-saving plasma for their loved ones.
Her mother, 77-year old Cecile Guidote-Alvarez was also stricken with COVID-19, but is expected to be discharged from the hospital within the week. The Philippine theater stalwart successfully fended off the virus after a week of intubation as “her fighting spirit defies logic.” Xilca is however keeping the condition of her father a secret from her mom to keep her spirits up.
When she knew
It was while she was in the thick of preparing for the protocols to be followed by the Quirino Memorial Medical Center that Aranzamendez felt the early symptoms of the virus: shortness of breath which was followed by low grade fever. “I started coughing and I could not eat,” she says, describing the next few symptoms she experienced. “There was a loss of appetite. I felt very weak. The weakness was really profound. Any food that was offered me I didn’t like it. More of the taste, there was a metallic taste. I could hardly taste the food.”
Before her test results arrived, she had herself admitted. “The weakness was debilitating. I could not sleep. I had to have my back rested high so I could sleep. Otherwise it was really very hard to breath. Lucky for me I didn’t get to the point where I had to be intubated. Still there was difficulty in breathing and when I cough it feels like my whole lungs are coming out.”
While confined, the doctor remembers hearing the sound of running along the hospital corridors and was later told patients in other rooms were going into cardiac arrest, a complication from COVID-19. She feared she may be the next one.
Doctors say a donor can give their plasma more than once, after resting for 14 days. Dr. Aranzamendez says she will be ready again when the call comes. She may not be at the frontline saving lives this time but she says giving her antibodies is her way of doing it this time around.
To donate please contact the following:
Ms. Mona Lisa Beltran at 8-723-0301 ext. 4725 or Dr. Mae Campomanes, Dr. Ryan Llorin and Dr. Jay Datukan
Ms. Icar Beguias at 8-789-7700 ext. 2096 or Dr. Gwen Dy-Agra, Dr. Mench Villavicencio, Dr. Carmella Bingcang and Dt. Francisco Lopez
Philippine General Hospital:
Dr. Sandy Maganito at 0917 805 3207 or visit http://tinyurl.com/UPPGH-BDC for more details