Kansas City 23-year-old recovers from COVID-19 thanks to experimental plasma treatment

'Don't think you're invincible, I used to think that.'
Posted at 7:13 AM, Aug 17, 2020

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Doctors and nurses are celebrating the recovery of a 23-year-old man who spent months in the hospital with a severe COVID-19 infection.

In early April, Shakell Avery began feeling some of the COVID-19 symptoms. He went to the emergency room, and within 48 hours, he was on a ventilator fighting for his life due to the virus.

After spending months in the hospital, he recovered, thanks to a convalescent plasma donor from New York and medical staff from Menorah Medical Center and Research Medical Center.

It's been a celebration ever since his family heard the news their loved one was coming home.

"You definitely feel the love," Avery said. "It's like they were waiting for a celebrity to come to town."

In late June, Shakell's doctors and nurses also celebrated his recovery.

"As hard as these days have been for some of us on the front line, it's worth it," said Dr. Marjorie Wongs with Menorah Medical Center said. "It makes it worth it."

It's a different story from just a few months ago when Avery first contracted the virus.

He shared how he felt right before he went to the hospital.

"I played sports, I played football, and I've never felt body aches like that," Avery said.

Ultimately, it was the shortness of breath that worried him and his family.

"I mean just taking real deep breaths, and I still couldn't get it, and I thought, 'something's wrong,'" Avery said.

He spent more than two months at Menorah Medical Center.

"He had life-threatening COVID-19," Wongs said. "He had severe pneumonia and required a ventilator. He had respiratory failure."

"I remember before I went in and then when I woke up at the hospital," Avery said. "I don't really remember much at Menorah."

Nurses and staff put up a tent for the family to say hello through the window and draw pictures because they couldn't physically be inside with him at the time.

Avery's family said it was such a blessing to see the healthcare staff doing what they could to see their loved one, especially since Avery was in the hospital for a total of 79 days.

"Initially, you hear two weeks, three weeks," Shakell's mother, Wiletta Avery said. "When he was put on a ventilator, that was the hardest thing for me."

Wiletta Avery then heard what no mother wants to hear.

"On April 11th, 4:30 in the morning, I'll never forget. They call and they're explaining to us that there's nothing they can do for him. He was maxed out on ventilation," Avery's mother said. "At that point they allowed me to go up and see him. And you know, they're not letting people into these hospitals, so when they say, 'You can come up,' you pretty much know what that means as if this will be my last time seeing him."

While seeing him, she asked him to do just one thing.

"I just asked him, I need you to fight for me," she said. "I need you to fight."

Wongs said there was a push to get convalescent plasma for Avery, but it wasn't an easy process.

"We contacted local blood banks; no one had any plasma available. We started looking for donors ourselves," Wongs said. "We even were contemplating flying a donor to another state, to where they could do the collection because we didn't even have collection capabilities in Kansas City until much later."

Avery's family members also went to social media, pleading someone who recovered from COVID-19 to help save Shakell's life.

They eventually found a donor.

"We ended up getting a donor from New York City. They were able to ship that plasma to us from the community blood center," Wongs said.

They transfused those antibodies into Avery's body.

"It's experimental. This is the first patient that I had given convalescent plasma to. It's been reported out for other infections, but you know, this was our first patient," Wongs said.

And it worked.

"To see he improved with it was just amazing for us," Wongs said. "I think it is definitely going to be one of the bridging therapies until we get to a vaccine or some sort of a cure. It is definitely one of the first things I go to now in patients that have severe, life-threatening COVID. I know we are using it much more than we were now."

Menorah Medical Center and Research Medical Center worked together to make the transfusion happen.

"We are part of a national clinical trial," Wongs said. "I think we'll have some data that comes out later this summer as to the efficacy of convalescent plasma, but those of us on the ground that are using it, we think the data is going to be promising."

Avery was only in his early 20s when he contracted the virus.

"It's definitely something I don't want anybody to go through," he said. "I just felt real depressed, robbed... like somebody just snatched you out your livelihood."

While Avery recovered from the virus, it hasn't been a full overnight recovery.

"You don't just come home and everything is right back to normal. I had to learn how to walk again, I had to learn how to stand up straight on my own, with no support. I'm still having to learn how to properly get up steps," Avery said. "I used to be active, moving, and now it's just like, everything that you learn that's new, that's second nature to you, you have to relearn. So it's difficult. The fight really ain't over until it's 100 percent over."

Avery has a message for young adults his age.

"When you decide to step outside, no mask, no sanitizer, no care in the world, think about whose father you're taking away from that kid. Think about whose mother you're taking away, whose grandparent, whose daughter, whose son," he said.

He said he hopes more people take this virus seriously.

"Don't think you're invincible, I used to think that," Avery said. "Take this as serious as you would anything else. Take this as serious as life, cause it's that serious."

Avery says financially, it's been hard too, as bills didn't stop while he was in the hospital for months and now continues to work on physical therapy.

His family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with financial assistance.

This story was originally published by Rae Daniel on KSHB in Kansas City.