Health West Edition

Former tennis pro survives COVID-19, donates blood plasma

Chicago native and history maker Katrina Adams is known as a tennis pro, a book author, public speaker and sports analyst.

While her days of playing competitively and racking up impressive wins are behind her, she continued to make headlines, when in 2015, becoming the first African-American female to hold the most powerful position in tennis in America. 

As the youngest president, CEO and chair of the board of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in its 135-year history, Adams made decisions to expand opportunities for minority and women in the sport of tennis.

Now in her early 50s, she continues to break ground as one of the first COVID-19 survivors to be tested for antibodies that can help fight the disease.

“Embrace the path that you lead and enjoy the battle,” said Adams who, in 2015, became the vice president (US) for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program and chairman of the Fed Cup known as the World Cup of Tennis. “There is not one journey that does not present a battle along the way, COVID-19 is one of our biggest battles.”

In early March, after coming off a series of travel, Adams was planning another business trip to Europe. Suddenly, she felt her immune system change.

“I am typically on a plane every week,” said Adams, who now lives in New York. “When and where the exposure happened is not confirmed, but I got a huge scare even though my symptoms were minor.”

She knew her friends were getting symptoms and that people were dying from the virus. 

“I had body aches, a fever, and was very tired for about a week,” Adams said. “I would sleep 10-12 hours and I would still need a two-hour nap.

“I thought it was just fatigue catching up to me because of a decade of constant traveling.”

Even though she had been dealing with neurological issues, she knew that the deep pain and discomfort in her shoulders and neck that ultimately went down her back to her Achilles tendon, was not normal.

“The second night grew into a crippling pain,” she said. “I then knew something was severely wrong. That night I woke up drenched in sweat.”

She decided to get tested after speaking to others who were feeling ill and sharing their experiences.

“Every day there was new information about the discomfort and symptoms,” she said. “We were still learning about the virus.”

When she called to get tested and gave the physician her symptoms, she was told to take Tylenol. 

“When my symptoms were more severe, I called again,” Adams said. “I went to the hospital and was given a chest X-ray and EKG, blood was drawn, and the COVID-19 swab test” was administered.

Her vital signs were fine. After two hours, she was released to go home with orders to self-isolate.

“It took nine days to get my results,” Adams said. “I had already been self-isolating for two weeks when I received a call. The results were positive.”

Adams had recovered from her symptoms. 

“A friend told me about Mount Sinai asking for people who have recovered from COVID-19 to volunteer to be screened for the antibodies,” said Adams, who did not hesitate to fill out the Mount Sinai COVID-19 Plasma Donation. Within 48 hours, it was confirmed that Adams’ antibodies were high, and she qualified to be a donor. 

“I went to the blood bank and gave my first pint of blood,” Adams said. “I am scheduled to go for three more sessions to give blood to help people recover from this virus.”

“The most common way to test right now is with a finger stick for a tiny drop of blood with a lateral flow or lateral slide test or also the ELISA (Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay) test that measures antibodies in your blood,” said Dr. Shawn Nasseri, a Mayo Clinic-trained ear, nose and throat surgeon. “This is as opposed to the PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) testing used to find the Coronavirus itself.

“The tests are usually finger sticks but some require a blood draw and then a serum (the liquid part of blood without the cells in it) is placed on test kits. It takes around 10 to 15 minutes for the test kits, which have a color strip of paper on them which goes from white to a pink color as the test runs.”

The tests show the presence of antibodies — fast “firefighter” IGM which are formed in as quickly as 10 days to three weeks and then the permanent “police” IGG antibodies, which can take six weeks to show up reliably on the test.

“If a person has a robust response, then they are more likely to be immune to the virus, although widespread evidence is still lacking in large groups of patients,” Dr. Nasseri said. “However, I would also caution that these tests have a 10% to 20% chance that the antibodies it detects may be from another cold like one of the regular coronaviruses which are 10% of all colds in the U.S.”

Despite her clean bill of health, Adams remains isolated, wears a mask and gloves when taking long walks and shopping for essentials.

“While I am no longer afraid, the outlook of the world will be different,” she said. “The habit of flying to meetings will end. We have the technology to be productive without getting on a plane.”

“As an optimist and a realist, I made a decision to stop traveling to meetings that take me around the world,” Adams added. “The world of tennis is upside down, just as the world is. It will take teamwork to beat the virus. Safety is essential for the protection of athletes, their families and the global population.”