Woman who survived COVID-19 hopes blood donation trials let her help others beat the virus

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Medical researchers around the country are beginning trials of infusing blood from COVID-19 survivors, hoping antibodies present in their plasma can help the sick and dying fight the disease.

At Rush Medical Center in Chicago, 61-year-old Barbara Ellis-Steele said she wants to use her hard-won immunity to help others.

The widow and grandmother of three says she woke up in her Englewood home March 10 with a throat as dry as the desert. 

After drinking a whole bottle of Gatorade and going back to sleep, she said there was more cause for concern when she woke the next morning.

“I started getting headaches, and pain shooting through my back and shoulder, but then when It started shooting up and down my leg – I said, this sounds like the stuff that they’re talking about,” Ellis-Steele said.

Initially, she took over-the-counter medicines like Flonaze and Mucinex to help keep mucus from building up.

“I started getting heavier and heavier symptoms. Then come the cold chills, the coughing.” Ellis-Steele said. “I started getting so, so weak. It was like death was coming over me. I couldn’t do the fighting that I was doing anymore. I didn’t have the strength.” 

By March 14, she had her family drive her to Rush Medical Center, where she was immediately quarantined and a COVID-19 test came back positive.

After 14 days of self-quarantine, plenty of rest, and a lot of citrus, the retired security worker said she feels much better.

“I ate about 40 oranges through this period. Every time I had an uncomfortable symptom, I ate an orange,” Ellis-Steele said. “I feel strong as a mule.”

She’s sharing her story to let people know it’s possible to recover, but as a survivor of the disease, she also wants to share something more important: her blood.

According to health officials, a donor’s plasma contains antibodies that can attack the virus and speed their recovery.

The FDA announced last week that the Mayo Clinic is leading the plasma research effort, testing the blood from those who have recovered from COVID-19.

During a national trial, blood plasma taken from people who have recovered from the coronavirus will be used to treat patients who are struggling with life-threatening symptoms.

After experiencing the disease firsthand,  Ellis-Steele said she hopes to help other infected people recover.

“Unless you’ve seen somebody suffer through this and feel like they were grasping their last day of life, when you’ve gone through that you know how important it is to help anybody you can to prevent it,” Ellis-Steele said.

Ellis-Steele said she couldn’t have gotten through the worst of the symptoms without her family and neighbors helping out. Since she left the hospital, she said her doctors at Rush still call in to check on her every day.

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