‘Liquid gold’: After agonizing COVID journey, Darien woman seeks to donate plasma
In March, Darien resident Kristina Gregory was one of the first to go public with her agonizing battle with coronavirus . It resonated with much of the community. And now, the 51-year-old wants to help others going through the same. She has begun the process of donating what she called “liquid gold” — her blood plasma.
Gregory is a healthy, physically fit woman, but she said the virus “leveled me.”
The wife and mother of two Darien middle schoolers has been an active volunteer in town — she served as a communications liaison parent for Royle School, and worked with Opus for Person-to-Person and the YWCA Darien/Norwalk. She works for Brown Thayer Shedd Insurance Agency.
Gregory’s experience began shortly after Darien schools were closed on March 12 and her agency’s office also shut down with employees working remotely.
On March 16, Gregory developed a low-grade fever and felt chills and sweats. She went to the Stamford Hospital emergency center and was tested for COVID-19. Her test results took over 10 days to come back.
“I don’t know where I got it or how I caught it,” she said.
For several days, her symptoms remained similar.
“I slept a lot — 18 hours a day,” she said. She, along with her family, forced herself to eat to consume needed calories for strength. Gregory’s symptoms included tightness in her chest but she — who has no history of respiratory issues — was not plagued by the bad cough others have experienced.
On March 21, Gregory lost her senses of smell and taste. She was quarantined from her husband and sons Nathan, 11 and Peter, 13, until the end of March.
“I’m a very, very healthy person and I got absolutely leveled by this disease,” she said at the time.
“I was in absolute agony for days and I couldn’t get relief from anything,” she said.
As of June 3, Gregory said she has almost entirely recovered, other than her sense of taste and smell, which is still at only 60 percent. Because of nerve damage, her doctors said that could last three to six months more.
But other than that, she’s back to being able to do a full workout and she does “thoroughly intense ones,” via Zoom, she said.
The only long-term impact she’s currently experiencing is the impact on her senses. On Wednesday, and even when she was still in the new stages of recovery — Gregory has been committed to making sure she actively pursued plasma donation.
In March, Mt. Sinai has announced it planned to initiate a procedure known as “plasmapheresis,” where antibodies from recovered patients will be transferred into critically ill patients, “with the expectation that the antibodies will neutralize it.”
There are some positive reports of critically ill COVID-19 patients showing signs of improvement after receiving convalescent plasma from people who previously tested positive for the coronavirus but have been symptom-free for at least two weeks.
Donations have been happening since the FDA announced in late March that convalescent plasma can be used on patients fighting COVID-19.
A Darien man who was on a ventilator in intensive care reportedly responded to a five hour course of plasma and went on to recover after being in a month-long coma. Read his story here.
According to Nuvance Health, which operates blood plasma donations in Norwalk Hospital and Danbury Hospital, the use of blood plasma to treat ill patients has been around for more than a century, dating back to the 1890s to combat a variety of diseases from measles, polio, SARS, MERS, Ebola and the H1N1 flu.
“With the development of a vaccine against COVID-19 months, if not a year, away, medical institutions throughout the country have started trials to determine if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients, when given to those that are severely ill, might be effective in decreasing the severity or duration of the disease,” the FAQs released by Nuvance said.
To qualify, plasma donors must meet the following criteria as set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
— COVID-19 confirmation with either positive swab or antibody test
— 14-day, symptom-free interval with a repeat negative swab.
— 28-day, symptom-free interval with no need for a repeat swab.
In March, Gregory said she already registered with Mt. Sinai and the Red Cross to donate antibodies to help others suffering from the virus.
She was originally tested at Mt. Sinai in early May. On May 13, she was told she was ready to donate.
This week, she said she always knew as “soon as I was starting to get better, I’m going to donate.”
“There are some people still so sick in the hospital for a long period of time,” Gregory said, and added that she’d seen evidence that donated plasma had really promising results.
Gregory said this is especially important given many people are concerned about the “next wave” of cases.
On Monday, June 1, she made her first donation at Norwalk Hospital. She said the experience at couldn’t have been nicer.
“The staff made it very easy. They kept thanking me and saying they appreciated my generosity. I couldn’t have been thanked more. It was super special, and it made me feel I was validated,” Gregory said.
She said some who have been sick aren’t willing to go through the “red tape” to donate, which Gregory did say was a bit laborious.
“But if it matters and it helps, I did what they needed to move forward,” she said.
The process itself was also a very positive experience. She was made to feel comfortable with pillows and said the needles were a much easier experience than she’s had before with needles.
“It was almost like a spa treatment,” Gregory said.
While she brought her iPad to distract her during the two hour process, she said she instead found herself watching the process of the gold plasma being taken from her blood. She also ended up chatting with the nurses who were handling the process.
“I talked to them about their experience trying to balance home schooling with their jobs. These women are essential workers,” Gregory said.
Greogry, an insurance agent at Darien’s Brown Thayer Shedd Insurance Agency, said “I am lucky enough that I can work from home. Everyone’s being affected in one way or another.”
Gregory’s plasma is being sent to Rhode Island to find out if she can serve as a “frequent flyer,” meaning she can donate once a week.
She also said Norwalk has asked her to just continue her donations at that same facility.
“They want to follow the process of an individual patient. With the strain changing, it makes perfect sense,” she said.
Gregory said she’s fully committed to donating as often as she can.
Monday was “two hours of my life. That’s nothing,” Gregory said. “Why wouldn’t I try to help?”
“I was very eager to start the process to be part of the solution. They consider this plasma ‘liquid gold,’” she said.