As a journalist, you learn never to make the story about yourself. It is instead the job of the fourth estate to capture the facts, stories, and quotes from the subjects you're covering on behalf of the readers and viewers you serve.
After I caught the coronavirus earlier this year, I battled with whether or not to reveal my diagnosis, or simply keep my work focused on the latest out of Washington (which at the time, was about the will-they-won't-they world of Congress passing a massive relief bill). But I quickly recognized that I wasn't one of the unlucky ones; instead, I realized that I was one of the very lucky ones who caught the highly-infectious disease but had the platform to share firsthand information about the experience, treatment, and path forward.
So it is armed with that viewpoint that I again share the experience of being a convalescent plasma donor through the American Red Cross, the experimental treatment that has anecdotally helped very severe COVID-19 patients. Earlier this month, I sat for my hour-long blood treatment here at the Charles Drew Center in Washington, and (squeamishly, I must admit) watched as my blood was drawn to access my plasma: the goldish-yellow liquid part of my blood now armed with the precious antibodies needed to defend against a virus that has so far killed more than 475,000 people worldwide.
When your body becomes exposed to a foreign pathogen, it builds up a natural defense in an effort to deactivate that threat; the secret to that defense gets stored in the blood plasma, and the FDA has fast-tracked research into how plasma from former coronavirus patients could help those still going through it. The American Red Cross tells me that to date, they have received convalescent plasma donations from about 7,000 former COVID patients and sent those donations to hospitals all over the country.
The process is actually wildly cool: you get hooked up to a massive centrifuge (or as I call it: a big spinny machine, which unfortunately is not the technical term) that separates the blood from the plasma; your red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets then get re-entered back into your body, while they separate the plasma to inject into a recipient in need. I hate needles; don't let the fully-tattooed arm I have fool you into thinking otherwise. But the Red Cross provides a movie and a small TV screen to make the hour-long process as painless as possible…complete with cookies and a juice box at the end.
For my story, I spoke with Dr. Erin Goodhue, the executive medical director for the Red Cross. She spoke about the unique challenges of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, telling Cheddar, "It's such a new pathogen, we don't yet have the tools appropriately to combat that virus...So we are helping in the FDA's very unprecedented effort to collect convalescent plasma to give to patients with severe COVID-19."
I was struck by the use of the word "unprecedented"; after all, I've covered the federal government long enough to know that its agencies do not historically respond to anything quickly. I asked Dr. Goodhue why she thought the FDA was taking such a strong and unusual step with COVID-19, to which she responded, "Because we didn't have anything else. No one had seen a pathogen like this ever before, clinically. And when it gets clinically severe, it's quite severe. I think the FDA recognized that fact and recognized we needed something in our clinical arsenal that was specific to the virus to combat it as best we could."
The historic nature of the pandemic we're living through often gets lost in the numbers; every day, news headlines tell the latest figures of infections, death rates, hospitalizations, and the dollars spent -- and lost -- in the virus' path. But in my unique situation, I want to remind readers of the personal elements of this disease: 102-degree fevers for three days; brutal back pain; heavy exhaustion for days; a nose swab to determine my status; follow-up tests to determine the presence of antibodies; then the donation process I described above. My best sense, after discussing the pandemic with many doctors, nurse practitioners, and health professionals, is that there is still so much unknown about COVID-19, and what "they" think is right today may not hold true in just a month's time.
This story is not about "me" -- it's about the scores of people around the world who have come down with the virus and the untold multitude who will still catch it in the weeks, months, and years ahead. But I will try wherever possible to be a good-faith messenger of the process from the "I" perspective; if I can help even one person better understand what's at stake and the details of the process itself, then it's a story worth telling.