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I got sick in February on a trip to New York. Every time I stepped into an elevator, someone was coughing. On my last day in town, I found myself out of breath walking up a small hill, though I walk on hilly trails nearly every day. At home that night, I went straight to bed. I thought I was just tired.

The next morning, I woke to every symptom of COVID-19 I’d read about, plus some that hadn’t been reported yet: fever, headache, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, nausea. At the walk-in clinic, my flu test was negative.

I was sick in bed for two weeks. Even after the fever finally broke, I was too weak to do much of anything. I’d take a shower and break out in a sweat as soon as I tried to step out of the tub. I coughed and coughed, and still it felt like an SUV was parked in my lungs. My primary care doctor ordered a chest X-ray, which showed pneumonia — a mild case, luckily. It was so early in the pandemic that COVID-19 tests were administered sparingly, and I didn’t meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for testing. “I think it’s reasonable to assume this is COVID-19,” my doctor said. “We just can’t prove it.”

During the next few months, proving it became something of an obsession for me. At a time when so much was frightening and unpredictable, I just wanted to know one thing for sure. In April I volunteered for a study by the National Institutes of Health to determine the scope of the epidemic by testing for antibodies in people, like me, who believed they’d had an unconfirmed case of COVID-19. More than 400,000 people volunteered for 10,000 spots. I wasn’t accepted.

Undaunted, I volunteered for a different antibody study — this one at Vanderbilt University Medical Center here in Nashville. In late August I was called in for a blood test to determine whether I carried COVID-19 antibodies in my blood and, if so, whether my antibody level was high enough to be potentially helpful to patients who might be treated with my plasma.

Would I still have antibodies in my blood six months after I got sick? By the time I was accepted into Vanderbilt’s convalescent plasma study, that question meant something very different to me than it had in the beginning. I was long past looking for proof that the “flu” I’d had in February was COVID-19. Many many Americans had already died by August. When I got the email telling me that my antibody test was positive and well within the range needed for this study, it felt like a gift to be offered a way to help save others.

Convalescent plasma is a treatment in which antibody-rich plasma from the blood of a Covid-19 survivor is given to a patient with an active infection as a way of inducing passive immunity. To be clear, convalescent plasma is not a cure; at the moment, there is no cure for Covid-19. But treating sick people with the plasma of others who have recovered has been practised successfully since the early 20th century.

A caveat: Though the early evidence suggests that COVID reinfections are exceedingly rare, at least within this first year of the pandemic, it is far too soon to believe that surviving the virus means you are safe. You still need to avoid large gatherings. You still need to keep your distance from people outside your immediate household. You still need to wear a mask.

But being a survivor means you can help. Donating plasma takes a couple of hours, and it’s no more painful than a needle stick. Your own body will replenish the plasma within a day or two, antibodies included.

At my last donation, I watched a friend’s small, socially-distanced wedding on Zoom while I was connected to the apheresis machine, which was collecting my blood and sorting it into parts — plasma, platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells. Nothing says Peak 2020 like donating antibodies while watching someone get married on your phone. It was joyful event, even on a tiny screen. I held my phone with one hand, and I squeezed a ball with the other, helping the blood move through the machine more quickly. I watched my friends promise to love each other through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, and I prayed for their health. For everybody’s health.

Joy and hope may not be what you expect to find in a university laboratory, but it’s what I felt anyway. Joy and hope and relief that there is finally a way to help.

— Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

The New York Times