Pumping Iron, and Maybe COVID Antibodies
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Pumping Iron, and Maybe COVID Antibodies

Blood donations are still crucial during these long pandemic days

They say the third time’s a charm, but after two fails over four months it was no coincidence that I actually passed my iron hemoglobin screening for the local blood drive. It was not luck, because I worked intentionally at increasing my iron uptake. It became a mission and a mystery to solve.

I wanted to donate, having O negative blood like my father, making us rare universal donors. According to the Red Cross, blood donations do make a major difference in our healthcare system, whether it is for transfusions or cancer treatments. And there is now a new initiative involving the US Food and Drug Administration to obtain “convalescent” donations of COVID19-recovered people for treatments of current patients.

On Saint Patrick’s day, just before our social lockdowns, I was so looking forward to giving a Power Green, I mean Power Red donation where they return your other blood components and fluids, but my hemoglobin level was not high enough and my spirit sank. I felt like I had failed. After an initial scale back of blood drives opportunities, it took me a while to reschedule in this COVID-19 era. But I failed again. That is when I got serious about pumping iron – into my diet not in the gym.

I was motivated to try a donation again and it didn’t hurt that the Red Cross was offering FREE COVID-19 antibody tests as well as FREE Wonder Woman T-shirts and an Amazon gift card. WOOHOO. I felt safe enough to venture out as COVID case numbers had been dropping in the Northeast. Timing is everything, but so my third time was not a charm as much as it was the results of weeks of focused eating, including kale, steak, and iron supplements taken with an orange for the Vitamin C citrus absorption boost… calculated and timed like one of my lab experiments, I was determined to analyze my blood situation and rise above it. It was my goal to win this fight. Remaining healthy is the best medicine every day and especially in these COVID-19 times where diabetes and heart disease complicate conditions. (PS: always consult your doctor!!!)

Wonder Woman may have used her lasso of truth to delve into the fictitious crisis events of the movies and TV stories, but for protecting the blood supply you need real, certified laboratory testing. From Hepatitis B and C to West Nile, there are many screening tests intended to keep the blood supply safe. COVID-19 antibody testing is new, and a perk to donors, but not intended for a diagnostic test like the nasal swabs and RT-PCR lab tests. Antibody detection can only tell you that you were once exposed to the virus, but it is unknown if those levels will persist for your future immunity. We must stay vigilant. 

Regardless, I was super curious whether I would have a positive antibody result and I was encouraged that the Red Cross was using an FDA-approved method, with demonstrated reliability. As a scientist, I know that without verified laboratory testing, we are unable to adequately understand and track outbreaks of everything ranging from E. coli in hamburgers to listeria in unpasteurized cheeses to SARS-CoV-2. I want to have confidence in the food industry for the safe cookies and juice I was enjoying at the canteen blood drive recovery table, and I want to have confidence in interpreting my blood tests. I thank the scientists as they are some of the superheroes behind the scenes who are fighting this health battle.

We all have a part to play in reducing the spread of SARS-Cov-2. That is also why I chose a quiet donation location, first time slot of the day, and lots of open room for social distancing. I was happy everyone was compliant with keeping their masks on properly! Unlike Wonder Woman, who could combat attacks in her battles with her impenetrable silver arm bands and tiara, I must make preventative steps by wearing my mask, checking my temperature before I go to work or before the kids go to their appointments, and keep socially distanced. As for my COVID-19 antibody test? NEGATIVE! Whew! Even before my arm has healed, the test results were available. That is science-certified fast. Thanks REAL Superhero Scientists!