Local Families Anticipate Joyful Reunions after Innovative, Unproven COVID-19 Plasma Therapy

Renee Bannister, 63, had been on a ventilator at Virtua Voorhees Hospital for three weeks when she became the first New Jersey resident to receive a convalescent plasma transfusion and recover from COVID-19.

Today the Gloucester County resident is alert, video-chatting with her family, and eagerly awaiting her return home, likely in time for her wedding anniversary in late May.

Such a recovery seemed near impossible a few weeks prior. Renee, a teacher, first entered Virtua Voorhees Hospital on March 22 with symptoms of severe respiratory distress, and was placed on a ventilator two days later. Renee’s care team, led by Dr. Lukasz Polisiakiewicz, attempted various treatments and interventions, but her conditioned continued to worsen.

Dr. Polisiakiewicz investigated the possibility of convalescent plasma therapy, and received FDA approval to attempt it one day after the federal agency authorized the treatment option. The next hurdle was to source the plasma, which remains exceedingly rare.

“Convalescent plasma comes from donors who recently recovered from the coronavirus and subsequently possess protective antibodies. 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,” Dr. Polisiakiewicz said.

Fortunately, Renee’s niece, Marisa Leuzzi of Downington, PA, 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,” Marisa said.

Dr. Polisiakiewicz, a cross-disciplinary team of Virtua experts, and the American Red Cross worked tirelessly to extract, transport, and transfuse the plasma, and conduct all the necessary tests each step of the way. Virtua also coordinated with the Mayo Clinic, which is spearheading convalescent plasma research nationwide.

On April 3, Renee became the first person in New Jersey to participate in the investigational use of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19. Her niece, Marisa, is the American Red Cross’s first donor for this initiative nationwide.

Within hours of the plasma donation, Renee’s oxygen flow improved. Within five days, her vital signs had returned to normal ranges. Eleven days after the transfusion, the Virtua team removed Renee from the ventilator.

Today, Renee is no longer in the ICU and is likely to go to a rehabilitation center in the days ahead to complete her recovery. She now gets to FaceTime with her husband and loved ones, and is making plans for her eventual return home.

“We are relieved and overjoyed,” said Greg Bannister, Renee’s husband. “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.”

Like Renee Bannister, Andy Fei, 61, is returning to good health after weeks of uncertainty and grim projections. Andy, a husband, father, and professional opera singer whose career has taken him to notable venues like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, is the second person in New Jersey to receive a convalescent plasma transfusion and recover from COVID-19.

The Mt. Laurel man had been on ventilator support at Virtua Voorhees Hospital for six days when he received plasma therapy. Marisa Leuzzi’s initial donation had provided enough plasma for both her aunt and Andy.

Andy’s sons, Patrick and Eric, had researched convalescent plasma, but knew that supplies were scarce and that transfusions had only been attempted a few times nationwide.

“Our father’s doctor, Eric Sztejman, had to get specific, individualized approval from the FDA and American Red Cross in order to proceed with the therapy. That speaks to how new and rare this is,” Eric said.

The transfusion took place on April 5; Andy’s care team took him off the ventilator nine days later.

“Each day when we spoke to the nurses and doctors, we heard tiny indications that his condition was improving. 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,” Patrick said. 

Although his recuperation is gradual, Andy – like Renee Bannister – is out of intensive care and will return home in time.

“We can’t wait to hear him sing again someday. Frankly, just to have a meal together as a family is going to be an amazing experience,” Patrick said. “We are so appreciative of everyone at Virtua, notably Dr. Sztejman and Dr. Jin Guo. Not only did Virtua take good care of our father, but they also took care of us and kept us informed and connected every step along the way. ”

“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,” Eric said. “Our story is a story of hope, and we want to give hope to others.”
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