McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Emmanuel “Manny” Lopez, a 34-year-old middle school teacher from the South Texas border town of Mission, is a die-hard triathlete who survived COVID-19 and now is on a mission to urge all survivors to donate their life-saving plasma.
Lopez has competed in seven full Ironman competitions, and 13 half-Ironman races. (A full Ironman Triathlon is a long-distance race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.22-mile run, done in that order. A half-Ironman are half-distance races totaling 70.3 miles.)
And he was training to compete in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand in November when the coronavirus pandemic began and all competitions stopped. Nevertheless, Lopez continued to train, riding his bike at least two hours or 40 miles daily; running 50 miles per week, and swimming at a friend’s home pool three times per week.
Then on June 19, he suddenly developed chills, fever, and body aches, and the next day went in for a coronavirus test and learned he was positive. He was never hospitalized but said he had extreme fatigue that made it difficult, even for an athlete, to sit upright in a chair.
He wasn’t alone. His wife of four years, Natalie, also an Ironman triathlete, got COVID-19. However, it took her upwards of three weeks to recover from the symptoms, which included chest tightness and difficulty breathing, he said.
After about five days, Lopez’s body rallied back and he began to get better. He strongly believes that the hours of training helped condition their bodies to fight the novel virus that has killed so many, and which is striking the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas especially hard right now. But he also realizes the ferocity of the virus, and that has prompted him to become an outspoken advocate on social media and within his circle of athletic friends, urging anyone who has survived COVID-19 to donate plasma.
“I like to think I follow a healthy lifestyle and that might have been the reason I overcame COVID easily, but if there’s anything we have learned about this virus is that it is not biased. It doesn’t care who you are. We can all get sick and it affects us all in so many different ways,” Lopez said on Tuesday as he stood outside the Vitalant nonprofit blood donation center in McAllen, where he has twice donated plasma.
Medical professionals say this “convalescent plasma” carries antibodies that might help seriously ill coronavirus patients to fight the virus. The commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Steven Hahn, even has produced a PSA urging survivors to donate plasma, and the agency’s website gives information on where to donate and the parameters.
On Wednesday, Lopez is scheduled to donate again. And he vows to continue donating every seven days — the maximum possible — as long as the antibodies live in his blood.
“I stand here today 42-days symptom free and about to donate plasma for the third time,” Lopez said.
Survivors can donate once they are symtom-free for 28 days. Lopez said the process is simple, pain-free and equivalent to donating blood. He says it takes about 45 minutes and he is able to give four bags of blood, and then a special machine separates the plasma. They also give him blood after his blood is taken so all he loses is a little hydration and protein, he said.
“Those four bags can save four patients,” Lopez said.
His brother and sister are “front-line” medical professionals at two area hospitals and he says he is very aware of the struggles they face on a daily basis, and the deaths they have seen related to this virus.
On Monday, there were 37 deaths from COVID-19 in the Rio Grande Valley and 1,671 new cases in the five-county area, ValleyCentral.com reports. There have been a total of 965 deaths since the pandemic began.
The situation is so dire that Gov. Greg Abbott made his second visit to the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday to confer with local officials as the state opened a special COVID-19 treatment center at the McAllen Convention Center. The converted facility can house up to 250 patients, including 50 intensive care patients. But the majority are likely to be those convalescing, still in need of oxygen and/or plasma to help give them strength and comfort as they fight the virus.
Abbott just visited the region a week ago, on July 28, when he announced that the facility would be converted and that the state would send teams of medical personnel to the region to help with the crisis.
Emmanuel “Manny” Lopez is seen competing and training in several triathlons over the years. (Courtesy Photos)
Because of the vast need in South Texas, there are no direct plasma donations currently allowed, but Lopez says that won’t stop him from continuing to give — regardless whether he ever knows the patient(s) he has helped.
If we come together and donate plasma we can slowly start turning this around.”Emmanuel “Manny” Lopez, of Mission, Texas
“I understand that at the moment we cannot donate plasma directly to a person, but that shouldn’t hold us back from helping out,” said Lopez, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and was born in Sullivan City and teaches in La Joya, Texas. “I feel it is extremely important to donate plasma because it truly is the right thing to do right now. We’ve seen the numbers skyrocket across the Valley in both the positive cases and the people who are dying, so I feel that if we come together and donate plasma we can slowly start turning this around.”