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Plasma donation helps COVID-19 patient make unexpected recovery

Plasma donor Abbie Park greets recipient Scott Cohen,

Plasma donor Abbie Park greets recipient Scott Cohen, of Bellmore, on Tuesday at the New York Blood Center. Credit: Jeff Bachner

In mid-April, doctors at Northwell Health's Plainview Hospital gave Scott Cohen of Bellmore 24 to 48 hours to live.

The 48-year-old retired EMT's chance of beating COVID-19 was slipping away.

But Cohen, who spent 10 days in a coma and hooked up to a ventilator, made an unexpected recovery after being infused with then-experimental convalescent plasma from a patient who contracted, and recovered, from the virus.

On Tuesday, Cohen attended an event at the New York Blood Center in Manhattan where he discussed his recovery, donated his own plasma for the fourth time, and met the woman whose generosity saved his life.

"I want to pay it forward and at the same time raise awareness so people get out there and donate plasma if they have antibodies," Cohen said after the event, where he also met Abbie Park, who donated her plasma to him.

Cohen said he thanked Park "which is probably the best words you can come up with but has nowhere near enough meaning to convey what you're feeling."

Park, 51, a graphic designer from Manhattan who contracted COVID-19 in March, said it's "humbling" to know her donation saved Cohen's life.

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"I feel really lucky because I was fortunate and had mild symptoms," she said. "It was really simple. And it's amazing how little I had to do and what kind of impact it had. It's really incredible."

Convalescent plasma, which has been used for decades to treat individuals sick with infectious diseases, was eyed early on in the pandemic as a potential therapeutic. Individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 build up antibodies in their blood, potentially making their plasma beneficial to patients still ill with the virus.

During the spring, the Blood Center was collecting 2,500 products of plasma — each dose equates to about 200 milliliters and one patient can give two to three products per donation — each week from about 900 donors, said Andrea Cefarelli, the facility's senior executive director of recruitment and marketing.

But with fewer patients contracting COVID-19 in New York State and the pandemic allowing for minimal opportunities for community blood drives, convalescent plasma donations have declined to 1,500 products per week from about 500 individual donors. she said.

"We are trying to build a national inventory for what we all believe will be a second wave this fall," Cefarelli said. "We want enough on hand to meet any demand as we head into the fall and winter months."

In late-August the FDA issued an emergency authorization for convalescent plasma among COVID-19 patients. But at the time of Cohen's illness, the therapy was rarely approved for treatment.

Cohen's brother, Michael, lobbied Northwell doctors to give the treatment to their 80-year-old father, Charles, who was also ill with the virus. But Charles Cohen died before the therapy could be approved.

A petition to treat Scott Cohen with the plasma garnered 20,000 signatures. Eventually Michael Cohen connected with Survivor Corps, which acts as a matchmaking service connecting plasma donors with recipients in need of treatment.

The hospital approved treating Scott Cohen with the plasma on a "compassionate care" basis to treat extremely sick individuals.

"Within 24 hours, my next memory is sitting up and the nurse is holding an iPad on FaceTime and on the screen was my wife and kids," said Cohen, who was released from Northwell on April 26 after nearly a month in the hospital.

Dr. Bruce Sachais, chief medical officer at the New York Blood Center, called convalescent plasma "an important tool" that doctors are continuing to study. Cohen's recovery, while on a ventilator, is rare but not unprecedented.

"For some people it's been really helpful," he said. "And for others it can be less helpful."

But for Cohen, the results are evident.

"I am proof it saves lives," he said, "because it saved mine."

To donate plasma, visit the New York Blood Center website

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