Like mother, like daughter.

Margaret and Allison Gingrich have devoted their careers to helping others.

So, after they both contracted the COVID-19 virus, they didn’t hesitate to volunteer as plasma donors.

“We both said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Margaret, who has worked for Spectrum Health since 1982, first as a nurse technician and now as a unit secretary. “If we can help someone, we want to help.”

Daughter Allison knows better than most how devastating a COVID-19 infection can be for some people.

A nurse at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, she cares for the most critically ill patients with COVID-19 in the emergency department and in the intensive care unit. She has given convalescent plasma therapy, along with other treatments, to patients fighting the virus.

To donate plasma “feels like a no-brainer,” she said. “If you have something like this illness and you can help people feel better, it just seems like a normal thing to do.”

‘A big shortage’

Plasma donations are desperately needed as COVID-19 surges in West Michigan, said Gordana Simeunovic, MD, an infectious disease specialist leading convalescent plasma therapy for Spectrum Health.

“There is a big shortage,” she said. “We really need more plasma donors.”

She urged those who have recovered from COVID-19 to inquire about being a plasma donor. Potential donors are asked to connect with Versiti Blood Center of Michigan through their website.

Their plasma contains antibodies—proteins that bind with the virus and kill it.

When a person is infected with the virus, it takes time for the immune system to make these antibodies. By giving donated antibody-rich plasma to patients, doctors hope it will go to work killing the virus, speeding recovery and giving the patients’ immune system time to ramp up its antibody production.

Each plasma donation can be used for two to four patients, Dr. Simeunovic said.

By Nov. 23, 556 COVID-19 patients received convalescent plasma therapy at Spectrum Health. About 20 to 25 new patients receive the therapy each day, said nurse educator Alison Dutkiewicz.

The treatments are considered an investigational therapy, and researchers are studying how they affect patients battling the virus.

“We need to learn who are the patients who benefit the most from this and what is the best way to administer the plasma,” Dr. Simeunovic said.

She is pleased with the response she has seen so far. She said many patients who have received the plasma have responded well.

No sense of smell

Margaret works as a unit secretary at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital in the intensive care unit, where many of the patients have COVID-19. Her heart goes out to them.

Then she saw it happen in her own family. Margaret’s husband, Bill, started showing signs of illness with cold-like symptoms in mid-October.

A few days later, Margaret had an inkling she might have the virus. Sitting at her desk at work, she realized she couldn’t smell the air freshener in front of her.

She became alarmed: The loss of a sense of smell is one of the telltale symptoms of COVID-19.

She went to the restroom and found three cans of room deodorizers. From experience, she knew they had a strong scent. She sprayed each one into the air. She could not smell a thing.

“I was scared and nervous,” she said.

Margaret left work immediately to get tested. That afternoon, she learned her result: positive for COVID-19.

Margaret called Allison to let her know she may have been exposed. The two meet frequently, often walking their dogs together near the Gingrich parents’ home in Sparta, Michigan.

Allison left work and scheduled a test for the next morning. She, too, tested positive.

Margaret and Allison feel fortunate they only experienced mild symptoms.

Allison had nasal congestion and a vague sense of being tired and “spacey.” She had little appetite but made herself eat food to keep up her strength. But she lost both her sense of smell and taste, and that made eating food “super weird.” She felt the texture of food, but not the familiar taste.

Margaret loss her sense of smell, but could still taste food. However, she had no appetite and ate little—just soup most days—for a week. She lost 10 pounds.

With his wife and daughter testing positive, Bill also underwent testing—and learned he also had the virus. Bill and Margaret’s son, Jon, managed to escape illness.

Allison saw one advantage of being sick at the same time as her parents: She could check in on them and make sure they didn’t show signs of serious illness.

How to donate plasma

After health officials cleared Margaret and Allison to return to work, they inquired about donating plasma at Versiti.

Allison donated plasma on her day off work. Although she had never donated blood and was a bit nervous, the process was “all in all not too bad,” she said.

Margaret had a blood test checking for HLA antibodies to determine if she is eligible. That is a routine step for potential donors who have previously been pregnant—and Margaret has two children.

“Fifty percent or more of previously pregnant women develop antibodies depending on the extent of genetic difference in tissue antigens between them and the father of their children,” said LeeAnn Weitekamp, the blood center’s medical director.

The HLA antibodies could cause a severe reaction in patients.

If the test shows no HLA antibodies, the woman can donate convalescent plasma. If the antibodies are present, she cannot donate plasma, but can donate red cells, Dr. Weitekamp said.

A call for donations

To those who have recovered from COVID-19, Dr. Simeunovic urges: “Please considering donating. We are all in this together, and we should all consider helping the best way we can.

“One way we can help is by donating plasma.”

As of Nov. 26, Versiti Blood Center of Michigan, had collected 2,699 units of convalescent plasma donations from 265 donors.

To be eligible to donate, potential donors must:

  • Have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 by a physician and laboratory testing.
  • Be symptom-free for at least 14 days.