The first coronavirus patient in Hawaii to receive an experimental convalescent plasma therapy has recovered and was discharged Friday from The Queen’s Medical Center.
Honolulu resident Moeloto Vaea, 53, had been in the intensive care unit since April 23 after contracting COVID-19 and was on life support on a ventilator for at least two weeks. While convalescent plasma that contains antibodies from recovered patients is considered an experimental treatment of COVID-19, doctors said it may have played a role in his recovery.
“I want to send my thanks to the Almighty for taking care of me. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be around,” Vaea told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, calling his recovery the “miracle of a lifetime.”
“I’m so thankful that the man above takes care of me. They put me on one of the trials and so everything is OK. I’ll be alright.”
It is unknown how Vaea, who is also a dialysis and chronic wound care patient, caught the virus since he did not travel and was not knowingly in contact with an infected person. However, he developed severe pneumonia, a complication of COVID-19 that required him to be intubated and placed in a medically induced coma.
“He was so very sick and we tried all the conventional methods … to try to support him as best as we could. Anything that could potentially work we wanted to give it a shot,” said Dr. Stephanie Guo, an ICU physician at Queen’s. “Just because COVID-19 is so new, we don’t have great evidence for a lot of the different therapies, but preliminary results out there does show a lot of promise.”
The hospital is also conducting research trials on potential medications to treat the coronavirus.
Convalescent plasma, with antibodies injected into patients who have not had time to develop their own internal defense systems, has been used in the treatment of infectious diseases such as SARS and MERS. One donation of plasma is enough to treat four patients.
The Blood Bank of Hawaii is collecting donations of plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients and distributing the blood to Hawaii hospitals. To date, the Blood Bank has collected plasma from 24 donors.
So far, two patients have been transfused in Hawaii — one at Queen’s and another at Adventist Health Castle, said Blood Bank CEO Dr. Kim-Anh Nguyen, adding that more than 10,000 COVID-19 patients have been transfused in the United States with preliminary studies showing the treatment appears to be safe.
“Antibodies buy you time to fight infection until you develop your own antibodies. The theory is very old. It’s been around for decades,” said Dr. Todd Seto, director of academic affairs and research at The Queen’s Health Systems. “For COVID-19 up until recently there’s been no therapy that’s been proven to be effective. Based on our experience with these patients, there’s anecdotal evidence that it works.”
Vaea’s wife, Moana, described her husband as “a fighter.”
“He’s very strong-willed, a true believer. He doesn’t need to see to believe. He’s a strong person of faith,” she said.
She also thanked the doctors, nurses, therapists and other staff who helped support him during his precarious weeks in isolation and who made sure to text and videoconference with family members. The hardest part about the ordeal, she said, was not being able to be there for her husband in the hospital, which is restricting visitors for safety reasons during the pandemic.
“The doctors and nurses were very supportive. They went above and beyond to make sure that families were really close with their loved ones while being in the hospital,” she said. “We’re beyond blessed. There’s no words to describe it.”
Guo added that the compassion of the hospital staff — including a physical therapist who texted family members pictures of equipment Vaea would need after his discharge and a nurse who prepared some of his favorite foods — is also what helped in his recovery.
“One of the nurses was cutting up apples because … he was getting depressed because he was not able to be home with his family. Those are the heartwarming things we see as they try to take care of these super-sick patients,” she said. “Sometimes we forget human interactions — nurses being in the room to hold his hand and give him extra things. These are the things we can’t measure and we can’t put into research studies.”
Hawaii health officials reported Friday no new coronavirus cases in the islands for the fourth time in May and also removed five cases that were indeterminate from the statewide count, which now stands at 642. On May 8, the COVID-19 count had no new cases for the first time in eight weeks.
There are 40 active infections in Hawaii, with a total of 585 patients now classified by health officials as “released from isolation” since the start of the outbreak — more than 90% of those who have been infected. The state’s coronavirus death toll remained unchanged at 17.
Just 1.5% of the more than 43,252 coronavirus tests conducted so far by state and clinical laboratories have been positive.
Nonetheless, Vaea and his wife are cautioning the public to remain vigilant.
“This can happen to anyone. It does happen to our loved ones,” Moana Vaea said. “It’s (affecting) the whole world. Nobody wants it, but it’s out of our control. We can only turn to the Lord. For him to get out of this is all God’s work.”