CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- The Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program proudly introduced Thursday the first known patients in the United States who received double-lung transplants due to COVID-19.
Mayra Ramirez, 28, of Chicago, received the first double-lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on June 5, and Brian Kuhns, 62, of Lake Zurich, received the second on July 5.
“In March, I started working from home and never left my house,” Ramirez said. “But in April, I contacted my doctor, complaining of fatigue, chronic spasms, diarrhea, and loss of taste and smell. I only had a slight temperature of 100 degrees, so I monitored my symptoms from home and kept in touch with the COVID-19 hotline every day. It wasn’t until April 26 that I felt really bad and went to the emergency department. From there, everything was a blur.”
Within 10 minutes of being admitted to Northwestern Memorial, Ramirez had to be placed on the ventilator. She spent six weeks in the COVID ICU on a ventilator and ECMO. By early June, her lungs showed irreversible damage and it was clear that only a double-lung transplant could save her, Northwestern Medicine said. The transplant team completed an urgent evaluation and within 48 hours of being listed for a double-lung transplant, Ramirez received the life-saving procedure on June 5, becoming the first known patient in the United States to receive a double-lung transplant after surviving COVID-19.
"I didn’t wear a mask or nothing. I thought it was like those other ones coming out of China, the other colds or whatever they were," he said.
“No one can prepare you for the emotional toll COVID-19 takes on a family. Not being able to see, touch or hold your loved one as they’re fighting for their life in the ICU is extremely difficult,” said Nancy Kuhns. “Before COVID-19, Brian was a pretty healthy guy who loved music, cars and making people laugh. But he also thought COVID-19 was a hoax. I assure you; Brian’s tune has now changed. COVID-19 is not a hoax. It almost killed my husband.”
According to Northwestern, Kuhns received the majority of his care at another health system before being transferred to Northwestern Memorial for consideration of a double-lung transplant. Before his name was added to the transplant wait-list, Kuhns had to test negative for COVID-19. Due to the extended support with ECMO, his body could clear the virus, providing the consideration of transplantation.
Within 72 hours of being listed, the transplant took place on July 5, which coincidentally happened to be the 100th day of ECMO support for Kuhns. Typically, a double-lung transplant takes six to seven hours, but this surgery took about 10 hours due to lung necrosis and severe inflammation in the chest cavities resulting from COVID-19.
Mayra Ramirez said "it wasn’t until weeks later that I had the ability to think there’s a family out there that’s grieving their loved one. I have that person’s lungs and how lucky I was to have received it.
"I definitely have a purpose, and if that purpose is just simply telling my story to raise awareness for people to stay safe and take this condition seriously," she adds.
Of his doctors, Kuhns said, he's grateful.
"I’d just like to thank them. You guys didn’t quit on me. I’m so happy," he said.
Kuhns said he doesn't take life for granted anymore.
Ramirez said the disease has taken a physical and mental toll on her.
“Mayra and Brian wouldn’t be alive today without the double-lung transplants. COVID-19 completely destroyed their lungs and they were critically ill going into the transplant procedure making it a daunting undertaking,” said Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program who performed the transplants, in a statement. “However, our transplant team was committed to doing everything possible to save their lives and spent weeks preparing. The transplant procedure required a tightly coordinated effort from a multidisciplinary surgical team. When we opened Mayra and Brian’s chest cavities, large parts of their lungs were necrotic and filled with infection. The severe damage and inflammation to the lungs had caused pressure overload on the heart which further made the surgery quite complex. One misstep in the operating room could have led to catastrophic consequences. Nevertheless, the success of these transplants emphasizes that surgical innovation can also play an important role in helping some critically ill COVID-19 patients.”
Since performing the first known double-lung transplants on COVID-19 survivors in the United States, the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program has been offering guidance to other transplant centers around the world.
“We want other transplant centers to know that – yes – this is challenging, but it can be done safely,” said Rade Tomic, MD, a pulmonologist and medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, in a statement. “While lung transplantation isn’t for every patient with COVID-19, it does offer some of the terminally ill another option for survival – Mayra and Brian are living proof. Both patients continue to get stronger every day and we’re thrilled with their progress.”