After overcoming coronavirus (COVID-19), surgeon donates plasma

While George Chang, M.D., battled the cough, high fever and severe body aches caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), his immune system was producing antibodies — “warrior” proteins that fight infections.

“I had a rough go of it, but in the end, my body produced the antibodies to beat the coronavirus,” says Chang, a colorectal cancer surgeon at MD Anderson.

Most antibodies are found in plasma — the yellow, liquid part of the blood. Chang is donating his plasma to MD Anderson Blood Bank. His plasma donation may be used by MD Anderson to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients as part of a national initiative led by the Mayo Clinic.

This effort will help doctors determine if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help those currently facing the disease. People who’ve already had COVID-19 may have antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus — the virus that causes COVD-19 disease — in their plasma. Researchers think these antibodies could help stimulate a stronger immune response in patients with COVID-19. If they do, convalescent plasma may serve as a bridge until COVID-19 treatments or a vaccine become available.

“There’s no effective treatment for COVID-19, so patients who are the sickest are willing to try this,” Chang explains. “If this works, it can save lives.”

Convalescent plasma: an old therapy for a new coronavirus

The idea of using one person’s antibodies to help another person fight a virus is not new.

“Physicians have used plasma to treat other viral infections including the Ebola virus,” says Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., who is leading MD Anderson’s participation in the national convalescent plasma effort with Kimberly Klein, M.D., and Fernando Martinez, M.D. “While not proven yet for COVID-19, early indications show it could be beneficial for some patients and we are glad the FDA has made it an option.”

Doctors and researchers will be monitoring progress closely to determine how well convalescent plasma works to treat COVID-19 patients. The strongest evidence regarding the effectiveness and safety of the experimental treatment will come from this national effort.

When the doctor becomes a COVID-19 patient

Chang hopes donating his convalescent plasma can help others facing COVID-19.

For him, the coronavirus started with mild cold symptoms, before escalating to an almost 103 degree fever that wouldn’t subside. His muscles and joints began to severely ache, and, as he recalls, “I had the worst headache of my life.”

Chang struggled to answer emails and work from home.

“Before long, I couldn’t think straight,” he says.

After a week of worsening symptoms, he began to feel a bit better – but only for a day.

That’s when his immune system became overzealous and went rogue – attacking not only the COVID-19 virus but also the healthy cells in his body. This severe immune reaction occurs occasionally with COVID-19.

“I was short of breath,” Chang recalls. “I’d try to talk, but I’d run out of breath after a few words.”

He was admitted to a local hospital, then discharged the following evening when his fever began to recede and his breathing eased.

After his symptoms were fully resolved for several days with no signs of COVID-19, he was cleared to return to work.

“I’m so grateful to my colleagues who helped care for my patients while I was sick, and to my patients who understood why their surgeries needed to be postponed,” he says. 

A champion for social distancing

After his own COVID-19 diagnosis, Chang worries about lifting social distancing requirements too soon. He’s particularly concerned when he sees young people out and about, failing to abide by the recommendations.

“COVID-19 typically causes fewer to no symptoms in younger people,” he says. “As a result, many don’t know they have the disease. They may be walking around in public, shedding the virus unintentionally.”

Chang says he’ll never know where he picked up the coronavirus.

“I hadn’t travelled, and I wasn’t exposed to anyone who was noticeably sick,” he says. “It was just out there in public, and I was exposed without knowing it.”

Recovering and giving back after COVID-19

Even now, with all signs of the coronavirus gone, Chang is still recovering.

“I’ve always been active, and I like to run,” he says. “When I exercise now, I’m reminded that I’m not quite there yet. But I’m getting close.”

Though he knows his own illness was relatively mild compared to what others are going through, Chang is also grateful that he’s able to donate his plasma, with the hopes of helping cancer patients who are ill with COVID-19.

As he says, “Donating plasma requires very little time and effort, yet it may make a big difference to those who need it.”

Learn about donating COVID-19 convalescent plasma to MD Anderson online or by calling the MD Anderson Blood Bank at 713-745-6742.