From Blood Donation to Convalescent Plasma Donation: The Red Cross is in this Young Donor’s Blood

Kees Heetderks, left, with his friend Alexander Tanas at a blood drive while in high school.

Volunteering for the Red Cross is nothing new to 19-year-old Kees Heetderks. After all, as a junior in high school, he started to donate blood and organize Red Cross blood drives. Most recently, though, Heetderks became a convalescent plasma donor to help critically ill COVID-19 patients.

His desire to help fight the pandemic this way came after he and his family recovered from the disease. They all contracted COVID-19 starting last March: First, his 21-year-old brother felt ill after a trip to Copenhagen; Heetderks developed symptoms a week later. His father, a critical care physician at Wake Med who attended to COVID-19 patients, also became sick, along with his mother and younger sister. “My brother, sister, and I had flu like symptoms that lasted a few days,” said Heetderks, “My parents had a tougher time.”

He had been tested for COVID-19 at UNC and subsequently heard through UNC about the effort to collect convalescent plasma to help other COVID-19 patients. When he learned about the effort, he jumped at the chance to participate. “I wanted to help out,” he said. “For people who are fortunate enough to recover, it’s a great opportunity to help others.”

How It Works

Heetderks, who has donated blood about a half dozen times, said that his experience donating blood and donating plasma wasn’t all that different. An actual blood donation takes about 10 minutes, while donating plasma takes a bit longer—about 50 minutes. As a neuroscience major at Duke with a certification as an EMT, he was interested in the process. “It was cool to watch,” he said, adding that while the plasma donation was a bit tiring, he didn’t feel the lightheadedness that comes with donating blood. “I was able to exercise again pretty quickly.”

During a plasma donation, blood is drawn from an arm and sent through a high-tech machine that collects your plasma and then safely and comfortably returns your red cells back to you, along with some saline.

Doctors will then transfuse the donor’s convalescent plasma into a patient ill with COVID-19, providing antibodies that can help them improve—a treatment that can’t be manufactured.

“Great role model”

Heetderks says he’s been inspired to help the Red Cross from a young age through his grandfather, a longtime supporter. “He’s been a great role model,” said Heetderks. Also, Heetderks’ favorite teacher at East Chapel Hill High School served as head of the school’s Red Cross club, driving him and his best friend to participate. Now, Heetderks is head of the Red Cross club at Duke, while his friend is head of UNC’s Red Cross club. “We have friendly competitions now between our clubs,” he said, jokingly.  As head of the Duke Red Cross Club, he said he’s always looking for ways to promote Red Cross efforts.

Heetderks’ mother and brother are now also both donating their plasma. “It’s a great way to help,” he said. “Even if you’re afraid of needles, just realize how many people you can help out. Working together through drives, research, and donations, we can be a part of the fight against this virus.”

How to Help

Donors who have fully recovered from the new coronavirus have antibodies in their blood plasma to help protect against future infections. The Red Cross is working with the FDA to collect plasma from fully recovered coronavirus patients to provide to clinicians for patient care.

Eligible donors who complete the Donor Request form can make an appointment to donate convalescent plasma at a Red Cross or non-Red Cross collection site.

The Red Cross is encouraging individuals who have fully recovered from COVID-19 to donate convalescent plasma by registering on RedCrossBlood.org/plasma4covid. Their donation may be able to help seriously ill coronavirus patients and provide hope to families. Individuals may qualify if they meet specific convalescent plasma and regular blood donation eligibility requirements:

  • Have a prior, verified diagnosis of COVID-19, but are now fully recovered and symptom free from COVID-19.
  • Are at least 17 years old and weigh 110 pounds. Additional weight requirements apply for donors age 18 or younger.
  • Are in good health and generally feel well, even if being treated for a chronic condition. View blood donation eligibility FAQ.

Story by: Melissa Kaye | American Red Cross

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