FARGO — Gene Bad Hawk’s battle with the coronavirus began with headaches and fever. Over the ensuing 20 days since his diagnosis he would bounce between motel isolation rooms and hospital beds.
Before he entered the hospital the fourth time, on May 5, he called his friends and relatives and asked them to pray for him.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said Tuesday, May 19.
Bad Hawk’s high fever and headaches never abated. He was nauseous, suffered from diarrhea and lost his appetite.
He threw up so often it was difficult to keep even water down. He became dehydrated and, with “no desire to eat,” lost 26 pounds.
When he was admitted to the hospital for the fourth time, his symptoms had taken a turn for the worse. He had shortness of breath and low blood-oxygen levels.
“I couldn’t catch my breath,” he said. The 57-year-old was given oxygen, but not placed on a ventilator.
Given his deteriorating condition, Bad Hawk’s doctors at Essentia Health decided he was suitable for a research trial and he readily agreed to receive what’s called convalescent plasma — blood plasma containing neutralizing antibodies from a patient who recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The plasma was administered by intravenous drip, along with a bacteria to fight a secondary infection, Bad Hawk said.
“I felt miserable,” he said. But also hopeful.
The next morning, he felt a little better. By the end of the day, he felt good enough to eat his first meal in 10 days. The following day, “I felt really good.”
Good enough that he soon was discharged from the hospital, on May 8. Eleven days later, he considers himself fully recovered.
“I have no symptoms,” Bad Hawk said. On Monday, he felt good enough to go for a six-mile bicycle ride.
After 14 days of being symptom free, a person who was diagnosed with COVID-19 by a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR laboratory test, and is no longer infectious might be eligible to donate blood plasma, something Bad Hawk plans to do.
He credits the plasma with immune-boosting antibodies for saving his life, along with the prayers from family members and friends in North Dakota, Minnesota and his native Montana.
“I believe God directed the doctors to administer the plasma,” he said. “Not many people receive plasma.”
Dr. Karol Kremens, director of the intensive care unit at Essentia Health and a pulmonologist, said that convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients is an experimental treatment, given only to hospital patients with low oxygen levels.
Essentia has access to the plasma through a trial conducted by the Mayo Clinic. Although early reports are encouraging, there still is no clear proof that convalescent plasma is effective.
“It’s still under active investigation,” he said. “Hopefully as the study progresses we will have the data” to prove whether plasma is an effective treatment. “At this point we work under the assumption that it works and helps our patients.”
North Dakota health officials and Vitalant, the nonprofit blood bank serving hospitals in the region, encourage those who have recovered from COVID-19 to consider donating their plasma.
“There have already been a few cases in North Dakota where convalescent plasma treatment has proven beneficial for patients infected with COVID-19,” said Dr. Joan Connell, field medical officer for the North Dakota Department of Health. “This is a unique opportunity for someone who has recovered from COVID-19 to potentially save a life.”
Vitalant’s criteria for donating convalescent plasma require complete resolution of symptoms for at least 14 days, followed by a negative COVID-19 test or complete resolution of symptoms for at least 28 days, with or without a negative test result.
Also, donors must meet all other donor eligibility requirements and must be at least 16 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good general health.
Kremens also encourages those who have recovered from COVID-19 to consider donating plasma so other patients can benefit.
“We have given it to six patients at Essentia Health in Fargo,” he said. “We have seen improvement in some,” but two patients died.
Even 10 days ago, it took 48 hours for the convalescent plasma to arrive from New York City, he said. Now, through Vitalant, the plasma is available within a few hours, thanks to donors in the area.
“The more we have locally the more we are able to get it right away,” Kremens said.
Convalescent plasma, also administered by Sanford Health, is viewed as an interim treatment until other therapies or a vaccine become available. The treatment isn’t without risks, but appears generally safe. As of May 8 more than 7,000 units had been transfused.
The idea of using plasma containing antibodies from people who have recovered from an illness is not new. The method has been used for almost 100 years, with some evidence of benefit for rabies, hepatitis B, polio, measles, influenza, Ebola and other pathogens, according to the American College of Hepatology.
Bad Hawk is grateful that he was able to receive the experimental treatment, which he credits with saving his life. Before he became ill he was living in Fargo, but lately has been living in homeless shelters. He’s looking forward to returning to work soon as a day laborer.
“I feel pretty normal,” he said.
And Bad Hawk has advice for those who don't take the risk of becoming infected seriously enough, as he did. Wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and avoid close contact with people.