Convalescent plasma donation begins in Ardmore

Michael Smith
Chris Craddock prepares to donate plasma to the Oklahoma Blood Institute in Ardmore Tuesday. After testing positive for antibodies found in recovered COVID-19 patients, he decided to donate in hopes of helping others fighting the disease.

“February 18, I was sitting at a board meeting and I started feeling like I was coming down with something. Didn’t suspect it was anything unusual,” said Chris Craddock as he sat with a large machine drawing blood from his left arm. Achiness and slight nausea plagued him during that meeting to the point that he wondered if he would have to leave early.

He made it through the meeting and mentioned to his wife later that day. “I came home that night from the board meeting, I walked in the door and I said ‘I feel terrible,’ and she goes ‘me, too.’ She was fine the next morning,” he said.

A little more than three months after the mysterious flu-like illness started, Craddock became the first donor of convalescent plasma at the Oklahoma Blood Institute Ardmore Donor Center on Tuesday. The plasma in his blood contains antibodies found in people who have recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus first identified late last year.

The Oklahoma Blood Institute in early April started compiling a registry of donors and collecting the convalescent plasma. The program is part of an experimental initiative to use the product to treat seriously ill patients.

“As Oklahoma’s community blood supplier, we can quickly collect donor information and work with our local hospital partners to ensure any Oklahoman who wants to help a neighbor has that opportunity,” said Oklahoma Blood Institute CEO John Armitage, MD, in a statement announcing the program.

Craddock said the illness lasted more than two weeks but never really knocked him out. He went to the doctor and was tested for the flu, but results came back negative. His son, who soon developed similar symptoms, later tested positive for the flu. “I assumed they didn’t get a good swab and that I probably did have the flu,” he said.

He would power through his work days but would feel fatigued by early afternoon. “I’d go to bed feeling pretty good but I would wake up and the sheets would just be soaking wet, the pillow would be soaking wet, my hair would be wet and I’d get up and I’d just be freezing cold and shivering,” he said.

Even after the other symptoms subsided, Craddock said a “brain fog” lingered for weeks after. Then an odd symptom began to surface; he started to smell things that weren’t there and again went to the doctor.

“He actually scheduled a brain scan because I guess with brain tumors sometimes you smell smoke. Told him I was having some memory problems, he actually did a CT scan on my brain and it came back fine,” Craddock said.

Even though he was contacted by state contact tracers when he was diagnosed with whooping cough—a disease reportable to state health officials—several years ago, Craddock said he has not been contacted by the Oklahoma State Department of Health about his positive COVID-19 antibody test.

According to OSDH District 8 Regional Director Mendy Spohn, data published onto the state’s website is based on “acute viral tests” that can detect the virus. She said the department relies on testing methods that identify certain virus components, often through nasal swabs, so active cases can be monitored and traced.

Blood tests that detect antibodies, on the other hand, will detect the body’s response to the virus. Spohn said these serology tests may show whether a person had COVID-19 but would not suggest they pose a risk of spreading the disease. While the data can be important to give a picture of infection surveillance, it is not necessary for contact investigation and tracing.

“That’s why we work off of the swab or PCR-type virus testing, because that gives you a picture of current infection and if that person is infectious. By the time somebody usually gets antibodies, they’re passed the infectious or communicable stage,” she said.

About 135 donors in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas have provided nearly 400 products of convalescent plasma, according to the Oklahoma Blood Institute. The registry has so far collected information on 282 registrants, tested nearly 750 samples and found about 13.5% are positive for the antibodies.

Heather Browne, Marketing and Media Manager for OBI, said the institute’s current goal is to build up an accurate registry along with product for 41 hospitals in the region. She said one donor could actually help multiple patients.

“That’s why the number of donors is less than the number of products, because some can do two to three products for each time they donate,” she said by phone Tuesday.

Beginning in late February and through March, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States started to quickly grow. Carter County recorded its first confirmed case of the disease on March 25 and Craddock said that was about the time he started wondering about that weird illness he had recovered from just weeks before.

“You started hearing people talk about the symptoms they were having like the night sweats and all that stuff. I’d had some of those. The loss of taste and the loss of smell. I didn’t completely lose my taste or smell, but the unusual thing that I had was I could smell smoke occasionally,” he said.

He then started hearing about recovered patients carrying antibodies and convalescent plasma being used to treat patients still fighting the disease. He again visited the doctor, this time with members of his family, to see if anybody carried the antibodies. When the results were returned in the mail a few days later, he said he was shocked to find out he had the antibodies.

“I just contacted the blood bank, they put me in contact with Oklahoma City, I filled out the paperwork, sent them my paperwork and they got me scheduled for today,” Craddock said.

Craddock believes he contracted the virus after a meeting with people from out-of-state a few days before he started feeling ill. Other members of his family have also been tested for the antibodies and are still awaiting results, he said.

The funeral home owner said the virus has already changed how business is done but the positive case so close to home has changed business even more. “Of course, like everybody else, we’re sanitizing and cleaning constantly,” Craddock said.

“Unfortunately I felt well enough during some of those get dressed and go back to work, so I’ve had all my employees tested to make sure that they didn’t have it,” he said.