Plasma donation emerges as a recovery ritual for members of Congress

At least four members have made a point of donating so far

Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly this week became the latest member of Congress to end his coronavirus journey by donating convalescent plasma. ((Courtesy UPMC))
Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly this week became the latest member of Congress to end his coronavirus journey by donating convalescent plasma. ((Courtesy UPMC))
Posted May 14, 2020 at 6:00am

Mike Kelly was back home in his district at the end of St. Patrick’s Day week when he started to experience “flu-like” symptoms that included headache, upset stomach and chills. “My wife said, ‘You know what? I don’t like the way things are going here.’”

His doctor recommended a drive-thru coronavirus test, a six-inch cotton swab shoved up his nose for 30 seconds. It was “uncomfortable,” says the Pennsylvania Republican, euphemistically. “They go way past anything I ever thought they could do. I thought honestly it was going right up into my sinuses.”

About 24 hours later, Kelly found out he had COVID-19, which was especially concerning since he is over 70 years old and a Type-2 diabetic, two groups particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. He was a bit surprised considering he didn’t feel “that bad.” But his doctor warned, “Well, you’re gonna feel a lot worse.” And he did. The headache and chills continued, except now he also suffered muscle spasms, exhaustion, loss of taste and smell, and extreme loss of appetite. His diet consisted mainly of water and applesauce “from time to time.” By the end of his ordeal, Kelly says he lost 30 pounds. 

What came next is quickly becoming a ritual for members of Congress who have recovered from COVID-19. A friend suggested he should try to donate convalescent plasma, the liquid part of blood that can be collected from survivors. Researchers want to know how antibodies in the plasma might help other patients fight the disease. 

Kelly said he went through an extensive screening process before he could donate, entering a government-backed national program led by the Mayo Clinic. He had his blood tested at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and answered questions about his health history and contacts he’s had over the last three to five years. Once he got the green light, he sat for about 90 minutes at a Vitalant donation center near his home as a machine pumped his blood and separated the plasma. He even fired off some texts and got some work done while he reclined in his chair.

With that, he joined a small but growing club of lawmakers who have donated plasma in the hopes a transfusion could help another patient. For these members of Congress, it’s a way to raise awareness, lead by example and express gratitude. It could also become an expectation as more politicians contract the virus.

South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham gave the appearance he was calm and relaxed while local television cameras recorded his donation after recovering from “extremely mild” symptoms.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t exactly a new experience for Ben McAdams of Utah when the congressman donated earlier in April. In college, McAdams supplemented his income by selling his plasma so he could afford to take his now-wife on dates, as he later recalled in a 2010 interview with the Deseret News.

There’s an additional benefit for members. With all the gridlock and difficulty of moving legislation, it can simply be a way to feel like they’re getting something done.

“This is probably some of the best work I’ve been able to do in the 10 years I’ve been here,” Kelly says. “There’s so many times we spin our wheels trying to get legislation, get policy, and we never get it across the finish line. With this, I know that what I did Monday morning is actually going to good use.”

Kelly stresses that, for him, the process was easy. “I felt totally safe. I felt totally comfortable,” he says. He compares his donation facility to a spa.  

But as many different players, both nonprofit and for-profit, jump in the race to investigate plasma therapies, some see a confusing landscape ahead. One group of lawmakers wants the Trump administration to do more to educate the public. 

“We understand that the FDA and the CDC have taken initial steps to encourage plasma donation,” wrote Cunningham, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in a bipartisan letter, urging “additional steps to effectively share these resources with the public, people who have recovered from coronavirus, and hospitals and health systems.”

While Klobuchar didn’t have COVID-19 herself, her husband did, and he ended up donating plasma. As for Diaz-Balart, he became a plasma donor in April.

That makes at least four lawmakers who have made a point of donating — or in other words, most of the members of Congress who have publicly announced a positive coronavirus test so far. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tested positive in March, but his office did not respond to a request about whether he donates plasma.

Kelly says he asked the clinic if it’s safe to donate again. He can as long as he waits seven days, so he plans to go again Monday. If he gives again, he’s been advised to wait 28 more days after that.

“I hope this doesn’t sound corny,” says Kelly. “I just thought for me to give up a couple hours of my life to go and donate, donate my blood and let them extract the plasma from it, what an easy way to maybe be part of a cure that the world is searching for right now.”