BROOKFIELD, Ohio (WKBN) – A Brookfield family is wondering if a plasma donation would have saved the life of a family member, but relatives were never given the chance to find out.
John Mihalcin, 76, died May 4 at Sharon Regional Medical Center after contracting COVID-19. His son, Derek, said John was otherwise healthy before testing positive for the coronavirus on April 20.
Two days later, on his 53rd wedding anniversary, John’s condition worsened, sending him to the hospital’s intensive care unit with breathing complications.
Derek, a licensed psychologist, had read about some success in treating COVID-19 patients with the plasma of those who have recovered from the coronavirus. In fact, a woman in Pennsylvania donated plasma to her aunt and another critically-ill patient, saving their lives.
Plasma contains antibodies, and some doctors think it can boost the immune system of COVID-19 patients.
Derek said John’s doctor at Sharon Regional recommended contacting the Red Cross to facilitate the plasma donation. Derek said the family had three donors willing to step forward (one of which Derek said had preapproval from the Red Cross to donate to a plasma bank), but their efforts were met by resistance, and John was placed on a waiting list for the donation.
On May 1, three days before John passed away, Derek received a response from the Red Cross that the donors couldn’t give plasma directly to John. There was a process, and the Red Cross no longer accepts direct donor requests, citing a delay in the process for others in need.
“It is critical we devote our resources and efforts to collecting and building a larger supply of readily available convalescent plasma to meet the broader demand for all patients in need,” read the response the Red Cross gave to Derek.
For Derek, it was a slap in the face.
“I can specify who my blood goes to. I can specify who I donate a kidney to. Why can’t a person specify who they want their plasma to go to?” he asked.
He questions why the process was done with a direct donor before, even across Pennsylvania in Chester County.
“What really made me frustrated was the article we found about the lady who was able to donate to a family member. That’s when the frustration set in, because they were allowing one person to donate and not another, and that’s setting a precedent,” he said.
WKBN reached out to that donor, Marisa Leuzzi, who confirmed that she was able to give plasma directly to her aunt. She said she believed the regulations had changed since that initial donation, which is still considered to be experimental.
She declined to answer more detailed questions about her donation, saying the family is giving no more interviews while her aunt is recovering from the coronavirus.
Leuzzi herself was actually the Red Cross’s first convalescent plasma donor to save a patient. Her donation was praised by the governor, and the Red Cross even lists her story on its website, though the Red Cross does not identify one of the recipients as being Leuzzi’s aunt.
WKBN asked the Red Cross what changed since Leuzzi’s donation, but the Red Cross didn’t specifically answer that question. Instead, a Red Cross spokeswoman spelled out the process of direct convalescent plasma donation, saying it is a process that takes more time than getting a donation directly from the Red Cross’s bank, which takes about 36 hours.
“It is critical we devote our resources and efforts to collecting and building a larger supply of readily available convalescent plasma to meet the broader demand for all patients in need. This also allows the Red Cross to ensure patients receive products in accordance with a fair and equitable process,” read the statement from Red Cross spokesperson Regina Boothe Bratton.
Boothe Bratton said the Red Cross understands the urgency of the situation and is “working around the clock” to collect convalescent plasma to provide patients through the bank. She added that the Red Cross is able to distribute to hospitals that register under an FDA-approved program that is being run by the Mayo Clinic.
Sharon Regional also issued a statement, saying because convalescent plasma is currently considered an investigational treatment, it requires an application process and approval by the FDA. As such, plasma must be obtained from an FDA-registered blood establishment like the Red Cross, which is responsible for matching donor eligibility and qualifications.
The FDA says, however, that its regulations do not prevent directed donation of convalescent plasma. Individual blood centers determine how to handle such requests, though certain eligibility requirements must be met.
According to a report by Business Insider, it took about four days to set up Leuzzi’s donation, and three days after that for it to reach her 63-year-old aunt, who was at that point on a ventilator. Just hours after receiving the donation, her blood oxygen level jumped, and over the next few days, her vitals began to stabilize.
For his part, Derek is realistic. He doesn’t know if the plasma donation would have saved his father’s life. He just wanted to give him all of the available treatment options.
He said it’s especially tragic that his father, who was known for giving back in the Brookfield community, was a lifelong donor to the Red Cross.
“He was just so kind, and this is why so many people were upset by this, because we just wanted him to pull through,” he said.
Derek worries that a bureaucratic delay could be hampering a potentially life-saving process for other families, like his.
“Someone else is going to run into this same problem, and we really just want people to be aware of it. I think, one of it is going to be, if you go to a hospital that doesn’t have a blood bank and relies on the Red Cross, you may be told the same thing,” he said.