Children’s Wisconsin physician recovers from COVID-19, donates plasma for potential treatment

Dr. Lal donated plasma at Versiti's downtown Milwaukee donation center.
Dr. Lal donated plasma at Versiti's downtown Milwaukee donation center.

Last updated on April 10th, 2020 at 12:07 pm

Dr. Dave Lal didn’t immediately recognize his fatigue and body aches as anything unusual.

The pediatric surgeon at Children’s Wisconsin had been clocking in 16- to 18-hour days while on call at the hospital for a week.

“I didn’t think much about it at first; I thought it was normal on-call week fatigue and muscle aches,” Lal said.

But, after learning that someone from an out-of-town event he recently attended had contracted COVID-19, Lal immediately got tested. Children’s on-site lab returned the results within a day, confirming he had the virus.

“I never anticipated I would come back positive,” he said. “I did it out of caution for my patients and their families and my colleagues. I was shocked when it came back positive.”

Lal quarantined at home for two weeks, along with his wife, who is a surgeon at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Milwaukee, and their children. The more than 100 patients, family members and Children’s employees that he had come into contact with Lal were tested as well.

“I had a lot of worry that I had unwittingly infected patients, families and colleagues,” he said.

All of those tests have returned negative, according to the hospital. Lal said it’s a testament, in part, to the effectiveness of handwashing and other hygienic practices to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Lal experienced only mild symptoms — fatigue, aches and headaches — for the duration, as is the case for about 80% of those who contract the virus, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But Lal was frustrated to be at home, unable to help patients.

From home, he researched an emerging potential therapy, through which convalescent plasma collected from recovered COVID-19 patients is injected into severely ill patients. The plasma treatment has been approved by the FDA as an Emergency Investigational New Drug.

Lal learned Milwaukee-based Versiti, Inc. was initiating a clinical trial for the therapy, and he met all the requirements as a plasma donor, including having proof of a positive lab test result and a negative test result 14 days after recovering from symptoms.

On Monday, Lal was the first recovered COVID-19 patient to donate plasma with Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin. He provided enough plasma to help three patients, Lal said. The donation process takes 30-40 minutes and is the same as with other plasma donations, using an apheresis machine which separates the blood components.

The donations will be provided to hospitals participating in Versiti’s convalescent plasma program, which includes sites in its multi-state network.

“Many of our hospital partners have already requested the donations,” said Dr. Dan Waxman, senior medical director for Versiti. “They are anxious to begin the program.”

Plasma infusion therapies have previously been used to treat the Spanish flu in 1918 and more recently to treat the Ebola virus, said Dr. Thomas Abshire, chief medical officer for Versiti. But its effectiveness to treat COVID-19 is unknown at this point, he said.

“Researchers are working on drug treatments and working on a vaccine, but that’s not ready now,” Abshire said. “But this is something that’s ready now. And we believe it’s an advantage for Versiti to be one of the leaders on this.”

Lal urges anyone who is able to donate.

“There is such a great need for this,” he said. “There is no cure, so anything we can do to help critically ill patients is needed to get them through this.”

Lal expects to donate plasma two more times over the next few weeks.

“Anything I can do to help, I’m all in,” Lal said. “I just feel really fortunate that I had mild symptoms, but I want to help people who aren’t as fortunate. If I have something in my body to help them, I want to provide it. I think any health care worker would do this; I’m not special. We all want to help our patients and the community we live in.”

Lal has since returned to work at Children’s. Having likely built immunity to COVID-19, he said he’s volunteered to stand in for colleagues if they need to perform operations on a COVID-positive patient.

“It’s a time like no other I’ve experienced,” he said, noting many health care workers fear inadvertently spreading the virus to patients and their families.

“Doctors who work these long shifts, or PAs or NPs, are scared to come home,” he said. “They’re exhausted emotionally, and physically drained. Some are going to hotels, staying in their garages, showering in the hospital, eating a quick meal before having to come back.”

He emphasized that hand-washing and social distancing are the only measures available to flatten the curve and prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed with patients. Some models indicate Wisconsin will see a peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations on April 17.

Potential donors for the convalescent plasma program are asked to call Versiti’s hotline at 1-866-702-HOPE (866-702-4673) or visit

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