By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology
Walter Lamkin is among the first in St. Louis County to test positive for COVID-19, and he is the first recovered patient from the novel coronavirus to donate plasma at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
“It’s not about me. It’s about them,” said Lamkin.
Antibodies in the blood of survivors target the virus. The plasma is the liquid part of the blood that may treat COVID-19 when the plasma is transfused from survivors into people currently ill. Lamkin’s donation was used to treat three patients who were severely ill from COVID-19. Soon after, he received word from Mercy about how it’s believed his plasma donation helped.
“Two of the people who got my plasma were both on respirators and were no longer, and are doing fine at a much quicker rate than they had expected,” explained Lamkin.
It had only been weeks since Lamkin returned from his annual trip to Vail, Colorado. He spent a great deal of time on the slopes with friends. After returning home, Lamkin tested positive for COVID-19 and learned that some friends in his Vail group also contracted COVID-19. In hindsight, Lamkin said he had mild symptoms in Vail, which was in late February and early March, before governments and health experts raised the alarm in Colorado.
Most devastating for Lamkin was learning about the COVID-19 illness, hospitalization and death of his long-time friend, Rod Powell. Powell was a popular local musician in Vail. Lamkin said Powell had underlying health conditions, but he still finds Powell’s death hard to believe after spending time with beloved musician on the trip.
“I often think about my friend Rod Powell,” said Lamkin. “Did he get it from me? Did I get it from him? How did all that pass? It’s not something we’ll ever know the answer to, but it can weigh on me at times when I think about losing a friend and wondering how this all happened.”
That’s why Lamkin wants to help others who are severely ill with COVID-19. The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Lamkin hard again, with the death of another important person in Lamkin’s family circle; Bill Wight, age 77, from Cincinnati, Ohio also died from COVID-19. Lamkin said Wight did not have a known underlying health condition.
“That’s one of the reasons why I ultimately decided to go in and donate the plasma, because I can do something in their memories that will hopefully do some good for people.”
Dr. Emily Schindler is the medical director of Mercy Blood Donor Services in St. Louis. She explained how The COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Program is part of the FDA’s investigation into the use of plasma.
“Taking those antibodies from the healthy patients who recovered and putting that in someone whose immune system really hasn’t been able to mount an effective response, really relies on someone being recovered for 28 days. And in the St. Louis region, we now have many people hitting that 28 day mark,” said Schindler. “We’re really starting to schedule a lot more donors.”
Schindler said plasma from donors may be saving lives. Although not scientifically proven, Schindler said that’s what appears to be helping when overseeing a recipient’s recovery.
“It’s really exceeded all of our expectations,” she said. “Patients are showing dramatic improvement faster than we thought possible. The plasma donation each individual is making is dramatically changing the clinical course of these patients’ treatment.”
Plasma from one donor can be used to treat up to three patients.