On May 1, 2020, Richard Carl became the first person in Toronto to donate his blood plasma as part of a promising clinical trial coordinated by Sunnybrook that could be a breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19.
Richard came by his role in the fight against COVID-19 quite unexpectedly.
A married father of three grown sons, Richard never imagined a family ski trip to Colorado would be the start of a journey that would see four of his five family members contract COVID-19. In late February – weeks before COVID-19 would be declared a global pandemic, when there were still only a handful of cases in North America – Richard and his family went west on their annual ski holiday.
“An anxiety-filled period”
Richard’s sons began to wonder about the virus with some concern after reading a news story about a Toronto woman who had also recently returned home from the same part of Colorado and tested positive for COVID-19.
It was enough to prompt Richard’s eldest son to get tested. He received his results in less than 24 hours and called his dad right away. “You guys need to go in,” he said.
Within hours, Richard and the rest of his family headed straight to Sunnybrook for testing. Richard, his wife Cathy and his youngest son Patrick all tested positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, no one had severe symptoms and they were discharged to self-quarantine.
Richard describes the days that followed as anxious but manageable, given the relatively mild nature of his family’s symptoms. “We were basically just waiting it out, but it was an anxiety-filled period. Four out of the five of us were sick, and it could have gone badly.”
After two weeks of self-quarantine, with friends delivering everything from flowers to groceries, the family was finally declared “resolved” by Toronto Public Health.
Discharged and ready to re-join the fight
Shortly after Toronto Public Health cleared Richard, he received a very interesting call from the doctor handling the family file at Sunnybrook, Dr. Adrienne Chan, an infectious diseases specialist. Dr. Chan told Richard about an upcoming clinical trial that doctors at Sunnybrook, McMaster University and CHU Sainte-Justine hospital were launching across all of Canada.
The Convalescent Plasma for COVID-19 Research (CONCOR-1) trial is testing the therapeutic use of plasma – the portion of blood that contains antibodies – from patients like Richard who have recovered from COVID-19. Scientists hope to prove that antibodies found in the plasma of recovered patients can bind to and neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19. Under the leadership of Dr. Jeannie Callum, a transfusion specialist and clinician-researcher, Sunnybrook is the logistical lead for this national clinical trial that will involve as many as 60 medical centres across Canada.
Knowing that Richard was an active community member with extensive experience on the boards of non-profit and private organizations, Dr. Chan thought Richard would be a perfect fit for the CONCOR-1 steering committee. She was right. Richard didn’t hesitate at the chance to help in any way he could.
“There is an urgency to this trial because convalescent plasma has been tested around other outbreaks, but those pandemics ended before scientists had enough of a sample size to make their results statistically significant,” explains Richard. “This could prove once and for all, without a shadow of doubt, that convalescent plasma is a treatment for viruses like COVID-19.”
Raising hopes – and funds – to fight COVID-19
The potential to develop a treatment for COVID-19 is what prompted Richard to volunteer for the trial. And it’s why on May 1, he became the first person in Toronto to donate his blood plasma for CONCOR-1. His son Patrick, also determined to be involved, donated his plasma five days later. But Richard wasn’t done yet.
In partnership with Sunnybrook’s CONCOR-1 team and Sunnybrook Foundation, Richard, an experienced not-for-profit fundraiser, has already helped to raise over an astounding $1 million toward funding the trial. “Dr. Callum and Sunnybrook Foundation have been consummate professionals to work with,” says Richard. “I couldn’t think of better fundraising partners.”
Richard has no plans to let up. He says he will continue to raise funds for CONCOR-1, be an active member of the CONCOR-1 steering committee and donate blood again. As for the future? He simply looks forward to getting back to normal.