A young woman in Chicago is recovering from a double-lung transplant made necessary by a severe case of COVID-19.
The patient, a Hispanic woman in her 20’s, had no preexisting medical conditions when she came down with COVID-19. Before the surgery, she spent nearly two months hooked to a ventilator and ECMO.
“For many days, she was the sickest person in the COVID ICU - and possibly the entire hospital,” says Dr. Beth Malsin, a critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “There were so many times, day and night, our team had to react quickly to help her oxygenation and support her other organs to make sure they were healthy enough to support a transplant if and when the opportunity came.”
The patient was so ill that her doctors didn’t risk waking her up to tell her that she was getting two new lungs.
“She was starting to develop multi-organ failure from the result of the permanent damage that she had,” explains Dr. Ankit Bharat, head of the lung transplant program at Northwestern Medicine.
“As a result of the severe injury, the pressure inside the lungs started to really go up and the heart then started to fail - and when the heart starts to fail then the blood starts to back up, so the liver starts to fail and then the kidney starts to fail.”
Because organ transplantation requires patients to take immune-suppressing drugs, the doctors were forced to wait until she tested negative for COVID-19 before performing the risky surgery.
The surgery itself, which took 10 hours, revealed some of the worst lung damage Dr. Bharat has ever seen. Her lungs were “completely plastered” to the surrounding tissue, including the heart and diaphragm.
“A lung transplant was her only chance for survival,” said Dr. Bharat. “We want other transplant centers to know that while the transplant procedure in these patients in quite technically challenging, it can be done safely, and it offers the terminally ill COVID-19 patients another option for survival.”
The patient is still hooked to a ventilator while her body heals, but she is well enough to speak with her family on the phone. Doctors anticipate a full recovery, but they still don’t know how a healthy young person developed such a severe case of COVID-19.
Author’s Note: This patient’s recovery is great news, but for obvious reasons lung transplant surgery is not an option for most COVID-19 patients.
Researchers throughout the world continue searching for an effective COVID-19 vaccine, but experts say the road to a vaccine will be long. And herd immunity will require a large percentage of the population to get the vaccine.