By Mimi Teller, Red Cross volunteer [Read this story in Spanish.]
Last week, the American Red Cross commemorated one year since the pandemic’s onset. We also mark a year of incredible generosity where thousands of individuals who recovered from COVID-19 donated plasma for research and the potential to help patients battling the virus. Following her own COVID illness, El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona is one of those generous heroes.
In her mid 40s, Mayor Ancona ate healthy, exercised regularly and did not suffer any underlying health conditions. Yet nearly two weeks after contracting COVID-19, a hospitalized Ancona reached a level so grave she feared only prayers provided a chance for her recovery.
Ancona’s story sounds too familiar for so many.
Following the Thanksgiving festivities, a friend and fellow celebrant tested positive for the virus. Ancona immediately self-quarantined, but in early December, she tested positive. By then, the symptoms had already appeared – including a mild cough, sore throat, headaches and body aches, soon followed by fever, chest pressure and ultimately great difficulty breathing.
A visit to urgent care diagnosed Ancona with viral pneumonia and sent her home with an inhaler and oxygen monitor to ride out the illness. Two days later Ancona checked herself into the hospital, driving there alone so as not to endanger her family or friends. “I’m young, I’ll be fine!” Ancona remembers thinking at the onset. But as her health deteriorated in the hospital, she feared she would not recover. It was at that point she reached out to family and friends asking for their prayers.
After a difficult week in the hospital, the Mayor returned home, although her recovery was far from over. Still on oxygen and struggling to breathe, another two weeks passed before Ancona felt strong enough to laugh.
Upon her release from the hospital, Ancona championed increased testing services throughout El Monte.
“We needed to offer more testing services,” the Mayor said. “Residents needed to know if they had COVID and to make sure they take proper precautions and do not continue to spread it.”
Ancona lives with her daughter and credits her immediate move to quarantine and COVID-19 safety measures for her asthmatic daughter’s continued good health. The two kept their dishes separate, wiped everything down with disinfectant regularly, wore masks in the home, continuously washed their hands and stayed in their respective rooms as much as possible. During her post–hospitalization recovery, Ancona did not see her elderly parents at Christmas and pleaded with her community to do the same.
As Ancona’s recovery slowly progressed, a friend and Red Cross staffer suggested she donate plasma, which was being researched and used for its potential efficacy treating COVID-19 illness. While Ancona did not receive plasma during her own battle, she felt immediately inspired to give.
Following the 30-day symptom-free waiting period, Ancona visited a Red Cross blood donation center and rolled up her sleeve, only to find out her iron levels were too low to safely donate. Two weeks and plenty of iron–rich foods later, Ancona returned to try again and this time with success.
“Once the machine started, I was done in 45 minutes,” said Ancona. “The process can take up to an hour but mine was quick. I also didn’t have any of the possible side-affects ––no itchy feeling, no tingly or light headedness. They put the needle in, and I just caught up on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Mayor Ancona was quick to share photos from her plasma donation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to her more than 2,000 social media followers, reaching audiences that included fellow elected and city officials as well as her broader El Monte community. Ancona aimed to raise awareness on the fight against COVID-19 and stress the importance of giving back.
Since Mayor Ancona’s generous donation, the scientific, medical and public health treatment protocols have evolved. The latest evidence supports that patients experience clinical benefits when convalescent plasma contains high levels of antibodies and is administered early in a patient’s COVID care.
For this reason, the Red Cross urges potential new convalescent plasma donors to schedule an appointment to give whole blood or platelets instead. Plasma from whole blood donations that test positive for high levels of antibodies may be used as convalescent plasma for COVID patients and platelets donations help meet the needs of cancer patients and other lifesaving need.
On March 1, Ancona received her first COVID-19 vaccine, and while she can no longer donate blood antibodies acquired from fighting the virus itself, she is ready and willing to donate other blood products, both for scientific research and to save as many lives as possible.
Thank you, Mayor Ancona!