Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member Michelle Dykstra-Tibbs caught COVID-19 in early March of this year after attending a large event at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. She took precautions while attending and traveling but spent the next month recovering at her home in Oklahoma City.
“It’s truly the most mysterious, unbelievable experience I’ve ever had in my entire life, and I’ve had some crazy stuff happen to me. I’ve had multiple surgeries and recovered, and this has been the scariest thing I’ve ever been through,” she said.
“I thought I was going to die.”
Afterward, the Peltier family descendant found a renewed sense of purpose. She sought to improve the recovery process for others as the pandemic worsened in the United States; Dykstra-Tibbs learned her body’s response to the virus could benefit others, which prompted her to donate toward a new type of treatment in Oklahoma.
Diagnosis and recovery
Dykstra-Tibbs’ symptoms worsened while demands for testing skyrocketed in Oklahoma following the cancellation of the NBA OKC Thunder vs. Utah Jazz game in March. She attempted to find testing but encountered an overwhelmed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention system.
Dykstra-Tibbs then turned to CPN Health Services. That same day, they assisted her at one of the clinic’s outdoor triage tents established to isolate COVID-19 patients and reduce the spread of the highly infectious disease.
“I am so impressed with what we have going on at our Tribe,” Dykstra-Tibbs said. “And I’ve told everybody, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten tested if it wasn’t for our Tribe.’ And I think it’s just amazing what (Chief Medical Officer) Dr. Vascellaro is doing out there and (Public Health Coordinator) Dr. Roselius. They had an amazing setup. They were forward thinking. I wish that more people knew.”
She treated intense symptoms with over-the-counter products and an inhaler during the three weeks she waited for her test results. Dykstra-Tibbs became one of the first positive cases in Oklahoma and CPN Health Services. She regained most of her strength a month after her symptoms appeared and returned to work as a hair stylist a few weeks later.
“Right now, I feel really good. I got way more active and really upped my cardio. And, I’ve been following up (with doctors),” Dykstra-Tibbs said.
Although she has improved, she sees a pulmonologist for scar tissue in her lungs. Some routine blood testing also revealed she developed insulin resistance, and she is now pre-diabetic. Dykstra-Tibbs attributes this change to the illness. In June 2020, The New England Journal of Medicine published New-Onset Diabetes in COVID-19, a letter to the editor signed by doctors around the globe. It describes a “bidirectional relationship” between insulin resistance and the coronavirus.
“These observations provide support for the hypothesis of a potential diabetogenic effect of COVID-19, beyond the well-recognized stress response associated with severe illness. However, whether the alterations of glucose metabolism that occur with a sudden onset in severe Covid-19 persist or remit when the infection resolves is unclear,” they wrote.
Dykstra-Tibbs continues to participate in blood sampling with CPN Health Services to monitor her insulin and antibodies levels, which remain high after more than four months.
The experience also pushed Dykstra-Tibbs to educate herself further on holistic living.
“To be as healthy as I was and for (the coronavirus) to affect me the way it did, it’s just frustrating. And it kind of pushed me to want to help others because it’s not going to go away any time soon,” Dykstra-Tibbs said.
She volunteered to provide blood samples as antibodies testing began in Oklahoma, and IMMY Labs in Norman used them as part of a survey. Dykstra-Tibbs also tracked convalescent plasma donation development in the Oklahoma City metro. The treatment option includes injecting plasma with antibodies from a recovered patient into someone ill, potentially reducing recovery time and hospitalization.
“It’s rather an old way that’s been renewed to treat people because it’s giving them an influx of the antibody to fight off the virus,” said OBI Marketing and Media Manager Heather Browne. “It’s really an experimental initiative at this point.”
Oklahoma Blood Institute began collecting convalescent plasma for the first time in April, and Dykstra-Tibbs signed up. At the time Dykstra-Tibbs’ dealt with the illness, heath care workers lacked treatment options for the virus that had only emerged globally in November 2019. She jumped at the chance to provide one after OBI screened and approved her. She became one of the first donors in the state within a few days.
“They were like, ‘Your blood is perfect. We need you right now to save somebody,’” Dykstra-Tibbs said. “And it ended up being three people. So, it was kind of amazing.”
A donor can contribute as many as three units of plasma in a session. At the beginning of July, more than 200 donors had provided enough for more than 800 treatments distributed to 50 hospitals.
“This is a new pandemic. So, we’re doing everything we can to help patients who are suffering the most, and doing what we can to engage our donors in helping the effort to fight the pandemic because it’s nothing we’ve ever experienced in our 40-plus year history,” Browne said.
Dykstra-Tibbs also began giving blood to CPN Health Services to assist with the Tribe’s antibodies testing that it now provides. Her levels provided a reference point for COVID-19 antibody duration and development.
“It’s exciting to help and be a part of it,” she said.
She continues to find other ways to help those diagnosed with COVID-19 through friends and family in the health care sector, and she takes her precautions by wearing a mask while out in public or with clients.
“It’s just kind of crazy,” Dykstra-Tibbs said. “The whole thing’s been a learning experience, for sure.”
Oklahoma Blood Institute is looking for more convalescent plasma and blood donors. Any adult who gives blood also receives an antibodies test. If found positive, they can also provide plasma in one week. OBI also set up a registry for potential convalescent donors at my.bio-linked.org.
Read more about CPN’s response to the coronavirus at cpn.news/COVID19.