“At that point, his condition was worsening, showing no signs of improvement,” said John Burk, the doctor who was treating Martinez at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth. “We didn’t expect him to live. There was a constant dialogue: ‘What else can we do?’”
Looking back now, Martinez, 42, says he needed a miracle. What he got was a local priest: the Rev. Robert Pace.
Pace, 54, had been one of Texas’s earliest coronavirus cases, the first on record in Fort Worth. He had attended an Episcopal conference in Louisville back in February where he thinks he caught the virus and brought it home.
“I always like to be first at some things, but not this one,” he says.
The illness was unlike anything Pace had faced before. But he was treated by Burk and hospitalized for only three days before he was sent home to quarantine and recover. A few weeks and two negative coronavirus tests passed before Burk called the priest with a request.
“I told him we have someone in bad shape,” Burk recalled. “Would he be willing to make donation?”
Burk and his colleagues had decided to treat Martinez with convalescent plasma therapy. Both Martinez and Pace were Type O positive, and doctors hoped the antibodies in the priest’s blood might spur a recovery.
“It was this wonderful feeling, the idea that I could directly affect someone who needed it,” Pace said. “I was elated. ‘Sign me up. Where do I go?’”
There were no guarantees. The treatment is considered experimental by the Food and Drug Administration, though it has been approved for clinical trials and for use by critically ill covid-19 patients.
Martinez didn’t have much time, and the wheels started moving fast. On a Friday, Burk made a request with the FDA, which gave him approval in 20 minutes. Pace arrived at the local blood bank on a Saturday. He prayed with the technician as the machine collected his blood and separated the plasma, the yellow, liquid part of the blood.
The next day Martinez received his first 200 cubic centimeters of the priest’s plasma, antibodies and all.
“It really came together quickly, and that’s what I needed, something quick,” Martinez says. “I mean, once you’re on a ventilator, time is not on your side. If you don’t start recovering, you’re kind of in a downward spiral.”
It wasn’t until he received four or five plasma treatments that Martinez started rebounding. His lungs improved, and he didn’t require as much supplemental oxygen. He was soon removed from the ventilator, and after a week he was discharged from the intensive care unit. And then a week after that, Martinez was sent home to continue the long recovery process.
He had lost 30 pounds. His breathing was labored, and even the simplest tasks — eating or talking — were difficult. His mind was still foggy, and Martinez was slow to process what he had just gone through.
“But I kept thinking about all these things, like, ‘Wow, how did this all happen?’” he says. “I’m a person of faith. You see how it all came together, and it really is a miracle.”
There’s science involved, too, and clinical trials on convalescent plasma therapy are ongoing. There have been some promising cases, such as Martinez’s, but more research is needed and several studies are underway.
“Was it convalescent plasma that helped him turn the corner? The answer is we don’t know,” Burk said. “It is a noteworthy coincidence, and it was not an unreasonable expectation that it would make a difference for him. … It absolutely was marvelous, almost miraculous, that all of this came together in a way that allowed Jose to have a treatment that seemed to have made a difference in him.”
Martinez doesn’t have any doubts, and as his condition improved, he wanted to know more about the plasma donation he felt saved his life. Burk arranged a meeting, inviting both of his covid-19 patients back to the hospital last month.
They met in a courtyard area — the hospital’s Meditation Chapel and Healing Garden — the masks on their faces failing to shield the swirling emotions.
“I could see his eyes smiling,” Pace said, “and I hope he could see mine.”
Since making the plasma donation, Pace had prayed daily for the anonymous recipient on the other end. He had been both hopeful and curious about the outcome.
“It was one of the most joyous feelings to walk into the little courtyard and see him standing there, healthy and whole,” Pace said. “I was so humbled.”
Says Martinez: “It was a very moving experience, just a lot of joy, gratefulness, happiness. He saved my life. I truly believe that’s what turned things around for me.”
Burk says Martinez’s recovery is promising in the global fight against the disease. He would like to see patients receive convalescent plasma treatments earlier in their coronavirus battles, but the demand far outweighs the available supply. Blood banks have been encouraging those who have recovered from covid-19 and developed antibodies to make donations.
“If we had an unlimited supply, maybe we would offer it to folks when they first test positive or began having symptoms,” Burk said, “but it is such a scarce resource and we do not have an adequate supply right now.”
Pace’s plasma has been requested for six patients in total now and sent along to hospitals. The outcomes in the other cases aren’t known, but as someone who carries the antibodies, Pace feels a sense of duty. He is allowed to donate every month or so and is already getting ready for his third visit to the blood bank.
“I feel like we can all participate in miracles every day,” said Pace, the rector at Trinity Episcopal Church of Fort Worth. “Reflecting on this particular time in our country and in our world, we can all listen and we can look for opportunities to love our neighbor and to help our neighbor. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
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