(Editor’s Note: This narrative was constructed from a news release provided by Virtua Health.)
Renee Bannister entered Virtua Voorhees Hospital on March 22 with symptoms of severe respiratory distress. She had COVID-19. Two days later, the 63-year-old woman from Gloucester County was in intensive care and on a ventilator. Her prognosis did not look good.
Bannister appeared to need a miracle. On April 2, she got something better — Virtua Voorhees Hospital was given FDA approval to use a convalescent plasma transfusion to treat COVID-19 patients, a process that involves using the antibodies from someone who has recovered from the virus.
The next day, under the direction of Dr. Lukasz Polisiakiewicz, Bannister became the first person in New Jersey to participate in the treatment,
Within hours of a plasma donation from her niece, Bannister’s oxygen flow improved, the hospital said. Within five days, her vital signs had returned to normal ranges. Eleven days after the transfusion, the Virtua team removed her from the ventilator.
Today, she appears to be on her way to a complete recovery.
Virtua Voorhees Hospital officials announced Tuesday that Bannister and 61-year-old Andy Fei, who received a transfusion April 5, have both made “remarkable” recoveries after getting the transfusion.
The pair — the first two in the state and among just a handful in the country to recover by using the treatment — are both off ventilators and out of intensive care. They are expected to return home in May.
Dr. Eric Sztejman, the medical director for Virtua Health, called their recoveries “remarkable.”
“We performed the transfusions just days after the clinical trial was announced, so it is gratifying to be among the first in nation to explore this promising approach to combating the coronavirus,” he said.
No one is more grateful than the families of Bannister and Fei.
Bannister is alert and eager to go home. She’ll likely to go to a rehabilitation center in the days ahead to complete her recovery, hospital officials said. In the meantime, she is FaceTiming her husband and making plans that include celebrating her wedding anniversary in late May at home.
Her husband, Greg Bannister, is thrilled by the possibility.
“We are relieved and overjoyed,” he said. “There are so many people we want to thank, including Dr. Polisiakiewicz, the entire team at Virtua and, of course, our niece. We also thank all the people we will never know worldwide who were praying for us. It is truly amazing.”
Becoming the first New Jersey resident to receive a convalescent plasma transfusion and recover from COVID-19 was not easy.
Polisiakiewicz said he received FDA approval to use the treatment just one day after the FDA authorized it as an option. The next hurdle was to source the plasma, which remains exceedingly rare, he said.
“Convalescent plasma comes from donors who recently recovered from the coronavirus and subsequently possess protective antibodies,” Polisiakiewicz said. “Because COVID-19 is relatively new, the blood banks don’t have reserves at the ready. It is a matter of pairing an individual donor with an individual patient.”
Bannister’s niece, Marisa Leuzzi of Downington, Pennsylvania, emerged as a donor.
“I truly felt like I was given a gift to help others and there was no hesitation for me to become a donor,” she said.
Polisiakiewicz, a cross-disciplinary team of Virtua experts and the American Red Cross extracted, transported and transfused the plasma. The team conducted all the necessary tests each step of the way, the hospital said. It coordinated with the Mayo Clinic, which is spearheading convalescent plasma research nationwide.
Fei, a professional opera singer who has performed at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, needed a donor, too. Luckily for him, the donation provided by Marisa Leuzzi was enough for both her aunt and Fei.
Fei received his transfusion April 5 and began slowly improving.
One of his sons, Patrick Fei, said the family kept looking for positive signs.
“Each day, when we spoke to the nurses and doctors, we heard tiny indications that his condition was improving,” he said. “Sometimes, we could even hear Luciano Pavarotti (recordings) in the background, which we had asked them to play for him. Pavarotti is dad’s favorite.”
Nine days after the transfusion, Fei was off the ventilator. He is now out of intensive care and hopes to return home soon.
His sons, Patrick and Eric Fei, are eager.
“We can’t wait to hear him sing again someday,” Patrick Fei said. “Frankly, just to have a meal together as a family is going to be an amazing experience. We are so appreciative of everyone at Virtua, notably Dr. Sztejman and Dr. Jin Guo.”
Eric Fei said he wants his father’s story to be an inspiration to others.
“Once more is known about COVID-19 and whether antibodies can be donated to help others, I know my family is going to do all we can to give back,” he said. “Our story is a story of hope, and we want to give hope to others.”