James Crocker donating plasma

He was on a ventilator, fighting for his life. A stranger sent reinforcements

Updated 1:15 PM ET, Thu April 23, 2020

In a series of essays called The Distance, Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans living through the pandemic. Email thomas.lake@cnn.com to share your story idea.

(CNN)Kevin Rathel was delirious, paralyzed with drugs, trying to comprehend this waking nightmare. He did not know where he was, why they were sticking him with needles, or why someone in a mask was shoving a tube down his throat. Rathel was in a battle he didn't understand, fighting an enemy he couldn't see. Those people in masks were the nurses and doctors of Orlando Regional Medical Center. They were trying to save his life.


Americans living apart and together in the age of pandemic

On the seventh night, they got some help: 11 ounces of gold-colored liquid from the veins of a stranger. A man who'd fought the same enemy and won.
It started the last week of March, when Rathel's 19-year-old son got sick. He'd been delivering pizza, and it seems he brought the virus home. Rathel's two daughters got sick, as did his wife, Stacie Rathel. Kevin Rathel was sickest of all. By Thursday, April 2, he couldn't go upstairs without stopping to catch his breath.
Stacie took him to the hospital, where his condition kept getting worse. Kevin is 52, with no underlying health conditions. On Saturday morning, Stacie got a phone call. They were inducing a coma and putting him on a ventilator.
After the shock wore off, Stacie remembered something she'd read a few weeks earlier. Some patients had improved after receiving blood plasma from others who had recovered from Covid-19. She asked about it, and Dr. Satya Mukkera, the hospital's director of critical care, agreed to give it a try. Because it's still an investigational treatment, the hospital needed permission from the FDA. They got it within hours. Now they just needed the plasma.
Thomas Lake
Rathel's son wanted to donate, but he was ruled out because he'd never been tested for the virus. Stacie was still recovering, so she wasn't eligible. A family friend named John Stemberger took up the search. Rathel's condition deteriorated. One doctor told his wife, "He is the sickest patient we have."
As Stemberger worked his connections, he got a text about an unrelated matter from someone he knew down in Stuart. Stemberger said it wasn't a good time. He was looking for a plasma donor, because his friend was dying, and the donor had to meet all these requirements. A positive lab test for Covid-19. A compatible blood type. A full recovery from the disease, and so forth. He said he was looking for a needle in a haystack.
The man in Stuart texted him back: I'm your needle in the haystack.

A race against time

Kevin Rathel and Stacie Rathel
The man in Stuart was James Crocker, 49, founder and president of a company that manufactures specialty vehicles for roadway and runway maintenance. Crocker had gone to a funeral in late February after the tragic death of a 27-year-old nephew, and a few days later began to feel sick. More than a dozen relatives did too. Crocker's symptoms kept getting worse: nausea, fever, headache, coughing so much he couldn't sleep. On March 14 he went to the hospital, where he stayed two nights with pneumonia. He went home and began to recover.
As fear and sickness proliferated, Crocker felt immune to both. Although scientific data was limited, with experts urging caution, he felt almost invincible.
Now it was Monday night, April 6. Here was John Stemberger on the phone, talking about his dying friend and his search for a plasma donor. Crocker raised his hand. The blood types were compatible. He'd been symptom-free for more than two weeks. Within an hour, he was on his way to Orlando.
The hard part came the next day, when he tried to find a test showing he no longer had Covid-19. He drove around for hours, calling one contact after another. Finally he got a test at the hospital where Kevin Rathel was being treated, but he was told the results were three or four days away. When he asked a nurse how Kevin was doing, she closed her eyes and shook her head.
"These kids are going to lose their daddy," Crocker thought.
He went to the Rathels' house to meet the family. While he was there, Stacie got a call from George Ralls, Orlando Healt