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WVU grad one of first plasma donors in U.S. to save COVID-19 patients

Marisa Leuzzi in a Flying WV sweatshirt at a doctor's office.

Written by Michael Carvelli
Photos Provided

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Months ago, a woman did something that in easier times would not have been unusual. She gave blood. And then it changed everything.

It started on March 17 when Marisa Leuzzi, BS ’11, Public Relations, received a phone call from a local hospital near her home outside of Philadelphia. Four days after going through the hospital’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing process, the test came back positive.

 

She developed symptoms a few days earlier, including a fever that would go on to last for about eight days. Leuzzi, who has asthma, wanted to get tested because of the complications COVID-19 can cause in the respiratory system.

 

“I just wanted to talk to the doctor before it advanced,” she said. “I didn’t really think it was COVID at the time, but it turned out that it was a mild case of it. For me, the fever that I had was about the worst of it.”

 

Around that same time, Leuzzi’s aunt, Renee Bannister, was also diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease resulting from the new coronavirus.

 

While Leuzzi’s condition improved, Bannister’s health continued to decline. By March 22, the 63-year old had been admitted to the ICU and put on a ventilator.

 

The whole time that Leuzzi was on the mend from the virus, her mind kept thinking about her aunt a few hours away. Bannister was having a starkly different experience.

 

The person they knew as a happy, healthy teacher was now in her hospital bed in a medically induced coma with a ventilator working at 90 percent. It was a brutal time — and her family wasn’t able to visit her at the hospital.

 

Instead, they FaceTimed her with the help of one of the nurses — hoping each time to see a little glimmer of hope.

 

“You’re hoping for the best but preparing yourself for the worst. Everything just seemed to be moving so fast and furious, it was hard to grasp what was happening,” Leuzzi said. “We truly believed that she could hear us and knew what they were saying to her.”

 

“Every time someone would talk to her, her heart rate would go up. It was kind of like our sign that we needed some days. It showed us she was still there.”

 

Moments like that were what the family needed to believe that things could turn around, and why Leuzzi was so committed to finding a way to help.


Renee Bannister

                                                           Renee Bannister

She remembered reading about an experimental treatment, one that had not yet been approved by the FDA, in which the antibodies in the plasma of a patient who had recovered from COVID-19 could be donated to a patient who currently had it as a way to attack the virus. And, after talking to her uncle and bringing the idea and the studies up to Bannister’s doctors, Leuzzi became the first American Red Cross plasma donor in the United States.

 

The family worked with a team of doctors, as well as representatives from both the Red Cross and the Mayo Clinic, to help get federal approval of the infusion. After finding out she was a plasma match with her aunt and that she tested negative for COVID-19, Leuzzi gave her plasma donation at the Red Cross on March 31.

 

But it appeared they were starting to run out of time.

 

On the night before Bannister was given the plasma, doctors told the family that they were unsure if she would make it through the night to undergo that treatment.

 

“The doctors were trying to stay positive with us but also not give us false hope,” Leuzzi said. “This was really the last resort, so we had nothing to lose at this point by trying.”

 

“We were just hoping and praying that she’d make it through the night so that she could get the plasma and we would have at least been able to say that we tried.”

 

Bannister was able to make it through that night and receive the plasma from her niece, and, after a few very tense hours, they finally started to see progress.

 

In less than six hours, Bannister’s blood-oxygen levels began to improve. Slowly but surely her overall condition improved as well.

 

As her condition stabilized, doctors were able to slowly begin to reduce the medications she was receiving.

 

By April 14, she was off the ventilator.

 

On April 21, she was discharged from the hospital.

 

“We never really knew if she’d ever get to this point,” Leuzzi said. “The days felt like months, and we were just waiting and waiting, hoping for the best. She’s been through a lot.”

 

After her hospital stay, Bannister spent a few weeks in a rehab facility going through physical and occupational therapy. She recently came home and is continuing her recovery with the help of her family.

 

Throughout the whole time that Bannister was trying to recover from the virus, Leuzzi kept running through old memories of her aunt. The two have had a special bond since Leuzzi was born — her full name is Marisa Renee Leuzzi, after her aunt — and Bannister is also her godmother.

 

She remembers fondly beach vacations their whole family would take to New Jersey.

 

“We’d rent this big house and have our family vacations there in the summer, and I made a lot of memories with her on those vacations that I’ve always cherished,” Leuzzi said. “I still think about those vacations now and miss it. Maybe sometime soon we’ll be able to all get together and do it again.”

 

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Leuzzi graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in public relations in 2011. She began to fall in love with the University when she came to Morgantown to visit friends who were already students while she was still in high school, quickly realizing that WVU was a perfect option for her.

 

“I went to a small Catholic school growing up, so I wanted to go somewhere bigger for college,” she said. “WVU gave me exactly what I was looking for. There were so many opportunities for us to meet new people and explore things we were interested in while still feeling like a very tight, close-knit community.”

 

Now that she is out of school and working in the Philadelphia area, she said she can’t help but notice all the WVU connections she sees every day.

 

“I’m working with one of my friends from WVU right now. We still have that bond that we had back then, and it’s great,” Leuzzi said. “They also have an alumni chapter here that will have picnics and watch parties, and it’s just nice to feel like I always have that little piece of Morgantown here in Philly.”

 

Leuzzi’s role as the nation’s first Red Cross donor to give lifesaving plasma to a COVID-19 patient was already something that she’d remember for the rest of her life. But in the days that followed after her aunt received the treatment, Leuzzi was informed that doctors were able to use the remaining plasma to help another man in the same hospital.

 

Much like Bannister, this patient had been critically ill and on a ventilator — only to improve drastically in the days following the treatment.

 

Leuzzi said she still hasn’t quite wrapped her head around the fact that her plasma donation seems to have helped save multiple patients who were facing uncertain futures due to COVID-19. But she said she hopes that stories like the one their family is able to share now will help other patients who have recovered realize that they can also help by doing the same thing.

 

For now though, she’s just excited for the day she gets to see her aunt again.

 

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet for me, and I think part of that is because I still haven’t gotten to actually see her yet,” she said. “I think it will really come full circle and hit me when that happens. I’m excited for that moment when I actually get to see her and give her a big hug.

 

“What we went through and what other families are going through is hard, but if we can use stories like ours and see that it helps encourage other recovered patients to donate, then that’s amazing.”