The Trip of a Lifetime and an Unwanted Souvenir
Judith Karol finds a way to help others as a recovered COVID-19 patient
BY LISA MARIE HALECKY
Drums resident and critical care registered nurse Judith Karol, CCRN, went on the trip of a lifetime to Ireland with her daughter in March. But right after returning, they both became ill with the coronavirus (COVID-19). Karol is now hoping to help save the lives of those who are very sick with COVID-19; however, she’s not using her training as a nurse to do that. Instead, she is donating her own plasma for an experimental treatment that’s being used to treat COVID-19 patients.
Trip of a lifetime
The journey to becoming a plasma donor started on a happy note, with an eagerly anticipated six-day trip to Ireland with her daughter, Kathryn. They enjoyed the Emerald Isle alongside others in their tour group. Aside from not being able to kiss the Blarney Stone, no other health-related restrictions were in place. Handwashing and sanitizing were recommended but wearing face masks was not.
Four days into the trip, they heard of an upcoming travel ban by the U.S. government. Karol’s daughter then was notified by her employer that she would need to quarantine when she returned to the U.S. But they both felt well and continued enjoying their vacation.
However, on the last day of the trip Karol noticed several people in their group were starting to show symptoms related to COVID-19. Among the ill travelers was an elderly couple who sat directly across from them on their flight home. As Karol and her daughter waited for hours in customs with crowds of people, Karol recalls saying to her daughter, “If we don’t already have this virus, we might after this.”
Karol chalked up her tiredness and headache to that long day of travel on Saturday, March 14, but was more concerned that her daughter wasn’t feeling well. By the time her husband picked up the mother-daughter duo in Wilkes-Barre, Karol herself was not feeling well either – she had lost her sense of smell and taste, had no appetite and experienced a dry cough. The next day, her daughter’s temperature spiked to 102 F, and she was shivering.
On Monday, Karol received a call from the travel agency telling her that two people who traveled in their group were in the hospital and very ill. It was then that Karol and her daughter felt they needed to be tested for COVID-19. They sought care at the LVHN COVID-19 Assess and Test site in Hazleton, and then self-quarantined while awaiting test results. Weeks later, they learned that they tested positive for COVID-19. By then, both had recovered, feeling grateful they did not share the same ill fate as others.
Donor plasma journey
Toward the end of April, Karol saw a plea from the American Red Cross for convalescent plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients. According to the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB), when a person contracts a virus, like the coronavirus, their immune system creates antibodies to fight the virus. These antibodies are found in plasma, which is the liquid part of blood. Plasma with these infection-fighting antibodies is called convalescent plasma. Through a blood donation process, antibody-rich plasma can be collected from a recovered person, then transfused to a patient who is still fighting the virus. This transfusion of plasma provides a boost to the immune system of the COVID-19 patient and may help to speed the recovery process.
Karol’s resolve to become a plasma donor was solidified after an appointment with her primary care provider, Jodi Lenko, MD, with LVPG Family and Internal Medicine–Alliance Drive. Lenko told her that Miller-Keystone Blood Center was looking for plasma donors, and Karol met the criteria: It was 28 days after her symptoms resolved and she had tested positive for COVID-19. Karol also was subsequently screened for human leukocyte antigen (HLA), an antibody that women who have previously been pregnant might carry. She tested negative for HLA, so she could begin her journey as a convalescent plasma donor.
Karol discovered she could give this potentially lifesaving plasma every eight days. According to Karol, “It is a unique and easy experience to give plasma. I’m grateful and happy to do it.” She has donated plasma to both the American Red Cross and Miller-Keystone Blood Center and plans to give again. “If this immunity can help others, I will continue to give,” she says.
For more information about donating, read the LVHN FAQs. If you would like to donate your plasma, submit a COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Donor Request Form. Within 24 hours of submission, Miller-Keystone Blood Centers will review your completed form, reach out to let you know if you are an eligible donor and advise you on scheduling your donation.