Superhero Teacher: Mrs Wallace donates plasma to help fight Covid-19

Lizzi Wallace donating plasma

Since May, Head of Biology and Psychology, Lizzi Wallace, has been donating plasma to the NHS to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic. She has been one of the most prolific donators of plasma in the country with ITV news calling her a ‘Superhero Teacher’! Below, Mrs Wallace tells us her story.

I was unwell during the 2020 Easter holidays, just as the first lockdown was announced. It was not until May when I took a test to see if I had antibodies that I found out I carried the long-term IgM Covid-19 antibodies, and my levels were high (5.46 on a scale of 0 to 6).

A friend of mine mentioned the convalescent plasma clinical trial and with the evidence from my antibody test, I signed up online via the NHSBT website. After lots of background questions, it seemed that I was eligible to donate, though I did not meet the criteria for the ‘best’ donors – male, of black or ethnic minority and hospitalised with Covid-19. I was already planning on postponing my first appointment – I am terrible with needles and going into hospital in the middle of a pandemic felt strange – but the kind man on the phone offered me an appointment the very next day and without a decent excuse, I agreed.

My initial appointment was in June and it was the first time I had left the house, county and driving on the motorway in several weeks. It was also my first experience of face coverings – I had to buy one especially for the appointment as they had not been made mandatory yet.

Every time someone donates, you are triaged to ensure that you have not been in contact with anyone with Covid-19 or other infectious diseases, such as zika. The next step is pulse and iron level check – you must read over 120 units to be eligible, which means keeping a healthy diet with lots of red meat, dark green vegetables and plenty of vitamin C. You are also not allowed strenuous exercise, alcohol or any greasy foods 48 hours before you donate, so it helped me keep check of my health and diet over the past eight months.

Once passed the tests, you are then hooked up to the plasmapheresis machine. It looks like a small cashpoint, and all the tubing is stored individually in sterilised packing – it costs £6,000 to set up and run the machine each time. After confirming my name, address and date of birth multiple times, the nurse located the best vein and then it is needle time – my worst fear! I can honestly say that it took two seconds of pain, and then it was completely fine. Once the needle is secured, there were three plastic tubes attached to my arm; one to remove my blood, one to return my blood, and one for the anticoagulant so the blood returns smoothly. The machine starts and alternates between draw (where the blood is removed) and the return (when the blood goes back into my vein). After the draw, the blood is spun inside the machine and the plasma slowly accumulates in the bag. You are encouraged to have warm drinks and lots of snacks, and there are TVs in the clinic, as well as the radio to keep you entertained. The staff keep a close eye on how the process is going and it was lovely having new faces to chat to each time. The plasma removal usually takes me about 45 minutes, but this is dependent on body mass, blood pressure and hydration.

After the machine has collected 560ml of ‘liquid gold’ it returns the last remnants of my blood and the process is all over – the needle comes out and the plaster goes on. After 13 donations, I have only ever had two small bruises and my arm is completely recovered by the next morning. My body also replenishes the antibodies lost within 48hrs – something my pupils were initially concerned about. As well as the plasma collection, nine vials of blood are collected and sent off to Filton for blood screening, plus two further vials which go to Porton Down to be tested for Covid-19 antibody levels. This data has helped establish better understanding of the longevity of immunity and has been important in the development of the UK vaccines.

It has been amazing to be part of ‘real time’ science, particularly when it is needed most. My pupils have been so supportive of my donations and are desperate for me to be the world’s number one female donor. I love being able to let them know when I have received my latest letter informing me of my current levels and showing them the cheesy photos posed with the (rather unsettlingly warm) bag of plasma.

The trial is currently focussing on using the convalescent plasma as an alternative for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable but ineligible for the vaccine, for example those with compromised immune systems in the middle of chemotherapy. So, if you have had Covid-19 symptoms and have recovered for more than 28 days, you can sign up and take part in the trial. Plasma is also used in other hospital treatments and is especially valuable for treating burns victims and those with leukaemia.

I feel incredibly lucky that despite the odds, I have passed the eligibility criteria and have been able to donate 13 times so far. Each donation contains two units of plasma and could potentially save two lives, which is a little overwhelming. I go through a range of emotions each time I visit the hospital, from anxiety about the needles, to excitement at the prospect of a chat over a cuppa. I am going to continue donating as long as my antibody levels remain high enough and can safely say, my needle phobia is in check and I am excited to receive my Covid-19 vaccine one day. Thank you to everyone at Wycombe Abbey for their kind words of support.

Lizzi was featured on ITV news a few weeks ago, you can watch her interview and learn more about donating plasma on the ITV website.