COVID-19 hit Jose Martinez hard, forcing the 42-year-old who works in the accounting and finance profession into the ICU where he languished on a ventilator. His options were running out – until the FDA approved an experimental treatment: convalescent plasma therapy.
In a desperate attempt to save Martinez’s life, doctors at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth administered plasma (the liquid portion of the blood) donated from a COVID-19 survivor.
Containing precious antibodies to fight the virus, convalescent plasma is reserved for the most critical patients – like Martinez. His family prayed for a miracle.
When Martinez first became ill in mid-March, he didn’t have time to feel afraid.
“Everything happened so fast,” he recalls.
He took a COVID-19 test at a drive-through location in Burleson on March 20, then wound up in the emergency room before the results came back.
“My condition really deteriorated quickly. … Before I knew it, I was being intubated and put on a ventilator,” he said.
He woke up in a hazy state of consciousness, unaware that he’d spent the last 11 days in an induced coma fighting for his life.
Nurses played messages of support recorded by his friends and family: Get well. We’re waiting on you. We’ll have a barbeque when you get better.
“I could hear that in people’s voices they sounded distressed … and on the verge of crying sometimes,” he says. “I’m not used to hearing them in that way, so I started realizing that something bad must have happened.”
But Martinez’s fight was far from over: “After being on the ventilator and in ICU for 11 days, it really wreaks havoc on your body and mind. … You come out in really bad shape.”
On March 29, Martinez, still on a ventilator, became one of the first COVID-19 patients in Texas to undergo CCP therapy.
“He was acutely ill, and something needed to be done immediately,” said John Burk, M.D., a pulmonologist on the Texas Health Fort Worth medical staff. “That’s when the possibility of COVID-19 convalescent plasma (CCP) therapy came about. It’s a meticulous process that’s done on a case-by-case basis, but it’s one that is often used as a last resort for critically ill patients, such as Mr. Martinez.”
The treating physician must determine whether a COVID-19 patient in ICU is a possible candidate, along with getting consent from the patient’s family.
Jacqueline Adams, Martinez’s sister, heard about convalescent plasma therapy on the news, so she, along with her older sister, spoke with Burk about using the treatment on their brother.
“Dr. Burk discussed how convalescent plasma had been used successfully for other viral infections, and he made us feel secure in our decision to consider the treatment for Jose,” Adams said.
The convalescent plasma therapy aims to use already-produced antibodies to neutralize the virus.
After the infusion, he improved daily, and on April 3, he was taken off the ventilator. By April 6, he was breathing completely on his own.
Martinez soon found out that he had been one of the first coronavirus patients in North Texas to receive convalescent plasma therapy. He credits the treatment with saving his life.
“I was declining, and they were not seeing any improvement. … A few days after [receiving the plasma], I started improving,” he said.
Martinez is currently receiving speech and physical therapy.
This life-saving treatment was made possible by another survivor.
Father Robert Pace, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, holds the dubious title of the first COVID-19 patient diagnosed with the virus in Tarrant County.
“This was the worst illness I have ever had,” he says. “It was terribly scary.”
Pace had developed symptoms after attending a church convention in Kentucky. He checked into the hospital on March 9 and tested positive for coronavirus.
“It was a real surprise because nobody had COVID here,” he said.
Isolated in a negative pressure room for nearly three days, he struggled for breath.
“You feel like you’re drowning and there’s no water. … It was a very frightening experience,” Pace said.
Workers in “spacesuits” cared for Pace as he slowly recovered.
A few weeks later, his pulmonologist – Burk – called Pace (now recovered and out of quarantine) to ask if he would donate his plasma to a COVID-19 patient. Pace was in the donation chair at Carter Blood Center the next morning.
“I did not know to whom this was going, but I knew that it was going to somebody who desperately needed it,” he says.
Six weeks later, he found out: Jose Martinez had received Pace’s plasma, and it may have saved his life.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Pace remembers.
The two survivors met for the first time on May 22 in the outdoor chapel garden at Texas Health Fort Worth.
“I had a lot of emotions going, and was kind of at a loss of words,” says Martinez, who was joined by his sisters and mother. “I was very happy, and I wanted to give him a great big hug.” The two settled for an elbow-bump.
Pace describes the moment:
“It was amazing seeing [Jose] standing there. … It was this immediate sense of joy because here he is standing there in the flesh. He’s okay. He is well. Not only that, here’s his family. I can tell there’s love between them. … They watch him with such love. Knowing what they must have gone through, and the fear they must have had. … I was so humbled to be there and be part of this.”
Uniquely bonded by their experience (and a love of TCU), the two survivors plan to keep in touch. Both are part of Frog Nation.
Pace, whose church is next to TCU, earned a master’s and Ph.D. in history from the school and Martinez is a graduate.
They also share an immense appreciation for the front-line health care workers – and a belief in miracles.
“These are the types of miracles that happen every day if we look for them, and we can participate in them, because that’s how God sets up this world,” says Pace.
The Martinez family presented the rector with a statue of the archangel Michael, who is traditionally seen as a protector.
Martinez adds: “People have to maintain their hope and faith. … As dire as a situation may seem, just keep thinking positive because it can always turn around. Miracles happen.”
COVID-19 patients have a tremendous need for plasma donations from survivors. If you would like to donate, please contact your local blood center.