Breast surgery fellow: Why my coronavirus diagnosis led me to donate plasma

As a mom, fellow in breast cancer surgery and a former general surgery resident, I’m used to handling tough situations. But this past March, I found myself completely overwhelmed when my entire family was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

I wanted to do my breast cancer surgery fellowship at MD Anderson not only because it’s the nation’s No. 1 cancer center, but also because the people here genuinely care about each other. During my illness with COVID-19, I experienced that compassion firsthand. My colleagues were more caring than I could ever have imagined. They even supported me after I recovered, when I donated plasma that may be used to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.

My COVID-19 symptoms and illness

I developed a fever at home and tested positive for COVID-19 on March 16. My husband, Steven, developed COVID-19 symptoms at the same time and had to be hospitalized a few days later because his respiratory symptoms were so severe. That meant I was home alone with two toddlers, as I was trying to fight the coronavirus and feeling miserable.

I had fever, chills, fatigue, cough, a headache and temporarily lost my senses of smell and taste. I was literally the sickest I’ve ever been in my entire life — and I had to take care of Declan and Aidan. They’re 3 years old and 22 months, so they can be quite the handful. Both kids also had low-grade fevers and were presumed positive for COVID-19.

Support from my MD Anderson family

When you're a mom and a surgeon, you learn to pull it together, tough it out and do what you've got to do. But this was something I’d never faced before, especially without my husband, my rock, by my side.

My MD Anderson Breast Surgical Oncology family rallied together and helped me out in any way they possibly could. They dropped off meals, left presents at the door to keep my kids entertained, and people constantly checked in on me — all while safely practicing social distancing, of course. Some of MD Anderson’s top surgeons even called the hospital where Steven had been admitted to check in on him, too.

It wasn’t just my closest friends or the people I would expect to help either. The entire MD Anderson community really proved how exceptional this place is, and I’m so grateful. Their support helped me get through the most difficult weeks of my life. Thankfully, my entire family is now recovered.

MD Anderson took extra COVID-19 precautions

I contacted MD Anderson’s Employee Health team when I began having symptoms. Based on my screening results, they directed me to a free testing site for MD Anderson employees and continued to check in with me regularly. I was one of the first people at MD Anderson to test positive for COVID-19, which is part of what made my experience so scary.

But MD Anderson was quick to step in and take extra precautions above and beyond the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in order to protect our patients and to protect employees like me. I wasn’t surprised because MD Anderson has been on the forefront of the coronavirus pandemic, taking precautions as early as January to protect our patients and workforce.

My convalescent plasma donation for COVID-19 patients

As soon as I was cleared to go back to work, I reached out to MD Anderson Blood Bank about donating plasma. I knew that people who are infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop antibodies to the virus as part of their body’s defense. Once they have recovered, those antibodies remain in their plasma. The thought is that those antibodies could help stimulate a stronger immune response in those fighting the virus. MD Anderson is participating in a national FDA expanded access initiative led by the Mayo Clinic to provide plasma from recovered patients to patients currently facing the disease, and I wanted to do my part.

I’m afraid of needles, so when I told my family I was planning to donate plasma, my husband and mother were shocked. But after so many people went out of their way to help me, I knew I wanted to return the favor and go out of my way to help others.

Because of that fear, I’d never donated blood before, but I wanted to be part of this national initiative led by the Mayo Clinic to provide plasma from recovered patients to seriously ill COVID-19 patients. Last week, I made my first convalescent plasma donation, making me the second person to do so at MD Anderson. I was glad to know that Dr. George Chang, another surgeon, was the first.

The MD Anderson Blood Bank was wonderful with working around my hectic schedule to find a time for me to donate. Dr. Brittany Murphy, another breast surgery fellow, even popped into the Blood Bank to support me during my donation – from a safe distance. When I finished donating, I was so happy and proud to have the opportunity to help others who are facing COVID-19.

Focused on patients, no matter what COVID-19 brings

I could never have predicted this is how my training would go when I began my fellowship year at MD Anderson. The institution’s response to the novel coronavirus has affected the way that we train and operate. It’s taught me unexpected lessons about how to adapt, be flexible, be efficient and have patience. It’s also reminded me to be grateful for friends and family, especially my husband, who’s truly a Super Dad.

As I’m helping my breast cancer patients through this hectic time, I’m reminded why I wanted to become a breast cancer surgeon: it requires caring for the whole patient. We help breast cancer patients through one of the most difficult times in their lives. Even though things are scarier than usual for our cancer patients right now, I’m committed to helping them through cancer no matter what COVID-19 throws our way.

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