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WVU grad one of first plasma donors in U.S. to save COVID-19 patients

WVU Today

Months ago, a woman did something that in easier times would not have been unusual. She gave blood. And then it changed everything.

It started on March 17 when Marisa Leuzzi, a 2011 public relations graduate of West Virginia University, received a phone call from a   hospital near her home outside of Philadelphia. Four days after going through the hospital’s drive-through COVID-19 testing process, the test came back positive.

She developed symptoms a few days earlier, including a fever that would go on to last for about eight days. Leuzzi, who has asthma, wanted to get tested because of the complications COVID-19 can cause in the respiratory system.

“I just wanted to talk to the doctor before it advanced,” she said. “I didn’t really think it was COVID at the time, but it turned out that it was a mild case of it. For me, the fever that I had was about the worst of it.”

Around that same time, Leuzzi’s aunt, Renee Bannister, was also diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease resulting from the new coronavirus.

While Leuzzi’s condition improved, Bannister’s health continued to decline. By March 22, the 63-year-old was admitted to the ICU and put on a ventilator.

The whole time Leuzzi was on the mend from the virus, her mind kept thinking about her aunt a few hours away.

The person they knew as a happy, healthy teacher was now in a hospital bed in a medically induced coma with a ventilator working at 90%. It was a brutal time — and her family wasn’t able to visit her at the hospital.

Instead, they FaceTimed her with the help of one of the nurses — hoping each time to see a little glimmer of hope.

“You’re hoping for the best but preparing yourself for the worst. Everything just seemed to be moving so fast and furious, it was hard to grasp what was happening,” Leuzzi said. “We truly believed that she could hear us and knew what they were saying to her.

“Every time someone would talk to her, her heart rate would go up. It was kind of like our sign that we needed some days. It showed us she was still there.”

 Leuzzi was committed to finding a way to help.

She remembered reading about an experimental treatment, one that had not yet been approved by the FDA, in which the antibodies in the plasma of a patient who had recovered from COVID-19 could be donated to a patient who currently had it as a way to attack the virus. And, after talking to her uncle and bringing the idea and the studies up to Bannister’s doctors, Leuzzi became the first American Red Cross plasma donor in the United States.

The family worked with a team of doctors, as well as representatives from both the Red Cross and the Mayo Clinic, to help get federal approval of the infusion. After finding out she was a plasma match with her aunt and that she tested negative for COVID-19, Leuzzi gave her plasma donation at the Red Cross on March 31.

The night before Bannister was given the plasma, doctors told the family they were unsure if she would make it through the night to undergo that treatment.

“The doctors were trying to stay positive with us but also not give us false hope,” Leuzzi said. “This was really the last resort, so we had nothing to lose at this point by trying.”

Bannister received the plasma from her niece.

In less than six hours, her blood-oxygen levels began to improve.

As her condition stabilized, doctors were able to slowly reduce her medications.

By April 14, she was off the ventilator.

On April 21, she was discharged from the hospital.

“We never really knew if she’d ever get to this point,” Leuzzi said. “The days felt like months, and we were just waiting and waiting, hoping for the best. She’s been through a lot.”

After her hospital stay, Bannister spent a few weeks in a rehab facility going through physical and occupational therapy. She’s   home and   continuing her recovery with the help of her family.

Leuzzi is working in the Philadelphia area, and she said she can’t help but notice all the WVU connections she sees every day.

“I’m working with one of my friends from WVU right now. We still have that bond that we had back then, and it’s great,” Leuzzi said. “They also have an alumni chapter here that will have picnics and watch parties, and it’s just nice to feel like I always have that little piece of Morgantown here in Philly.”

After her aunt received the plasma treatment, Leuzzi was told doctors were able to use the remaining plasma to help another man in the same hospital.

Much like Bannister, this patient had been critically ill and on a ventilator — only to improve drastically in the days following the treatment.

Leuzzi said she still hasn’t quite wrapped her head around the fact that her plasma donation seems to have helped two people.  And, she said she hopes stories like hers will help other patients who have recovered realize they can do the same thing.

“What we went through and what other families are going through is hard, but if we can use stories like ours and see that it helps encourage other recovered patients to donate, then that’s amazing,” she said.