In 2018, Jose Abdelnoor, 72, and his wife, Evelyn Diaz, 67, decided it was time to close the chapter on their careers and begin enjoying the fruits of retirement. The Houston couple, veterans of the United States Armed Forces who went on to productive corporate careers, purchased a van to realize their dream of touring the country. While their passports arrayed pages stamped with colorful ink, their destination wish list in the United States—including stops from Florida to Alaska—had few checkmarks.
Over the next two years, Jose and Evelyn completed a few short trips as they geared up for some extended cross-country journeys. But just as they began plotting grand adventures, the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world.
“The pandemic has been rough on everyone, and it has been especially difficult for us,” says Jose. “We have been through a lot since the initial outbreak, and we are grateful to still be here.”
As COVID-19 prompted widespread lockdowns and travel restrictions throughout the United States in March 2020, the couple traveled out of state for a death in the family. After they returned to Houston with flu-like symptoms, both tested positive for COVID-19.
“Between the breathing difficulties, body aches, and fatigue, I felt like I was losing my mind,” says Evelyn. “We both reached a point where we got so sick and breathing became so hard that we felt we may not make it.”
While the illness lingered for what seemed like an eternity, they credit their UT Physicians cardiologist Heinrich Taegtmeyer, MD, DPhil, with standing by them every step of the way.
Evelyn says she will always remember Taegtmeyer’s reassuring words when they called to tell him that they had both tested positive for COVID-19: “We will get through this together.”
“He changed our mindset from fear to believing that we could overcome the illness,” she says. “He called to check in on us every day, taking our blood pressure and temperatures and giving us breathing exercises to help us get more oxygen.”
With Taegtmeyer’s guidance, plenty of rest, and constant hydration, Jose and Evelyn slowly recovered at home over the course of about a month and a half.
“I have cared for Jose and Evelyn for years and know them well,” says Taegtmeyer. “I am glad that I could help them during this difficult time, and I am grateful that they have made a full recovery.”
After recovering, Jose and Evelyn wanted to help others who were fighting COVID-19. Following Taegtmeyer’s recommendation to donate plasma, they joined the ranks of some of the first people to do so.
In people who have recovered from COVID-19, plasma—the component of blood that carries cells and proteins throughout the body—can be full of antibodies that know how to eliminate the virus. Transfusing this antibody-rich plasma into patients who are sick with COVID-19 may help them overcome the illness.
Jose recovered from the virus more quickly than Evelyn did, and he enrolled in the investigational plasma program at UTHealth and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. The program ended shortly after the United States Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma in August 2020, making the treatment more accessible to patients across the nation.
“Donating plasma was a great feeling,” says Jose. “It was quick and painless, and it gave me the feeling that I might be able to give someone else another chance to live.”
Once Evelyn recovered, she decided to donate plasma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Blood Bank in hopes of helping patients who are fighting cancer and COVID-19.
As Jose and Evelyn adjust to a new life created by the pandemic, they continue finding ways to help others. After researching the importance of wearing masks to help prevent the spread of the virus, Evelyn began creating them to keep friends and loved ones safe— including Taegtmeyer.
“I think back on the moments where I was out of breath, and I see how important it is to protect ourselves and the people we care about,” she says.
The couple reflects on their trials with gratitude, and they look forward to returning to their travel plans once the threat of COVID-19 has subsided. For now, they are happy to continue doing what they can to help others.