Patients Share Stories Of Double Lung Transplant After COVID-19

The first woman and man to receive double-lung transplants after severe COVID-19 complications are speaking out, hoping it's a warning to others.
Posted at 6:21 PM, Aug 03, 2020

On April 26th, 28-year-old COVID-19 patient Mayra Ramirez went to the ER. By June 5th, the illness had damaged her lungs so much that she received a double lung transplant.

"I looked at myself, I couldn't recognize my body, that it was a completely new body," she said.

Northwestern Medicine in Chicago recently discharged Ramirez. But she recalls how within ten minutes of being admitted, doctors had her call her family — who live states away — so they could make medical decisions for her. 

"My entire family is in North Carolina. I only had a couple minutes to contact them, to let them know what was going on before I was intubated  for six weeks," she said.

During that crisis, she, like other COVID-19 patients in the hospital, had to go it alone. She and her family were not able to see each other.

On July 5th, 62-year-old Brian Kuhns received a double lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, after 100 days on ECMO, a life-saving machine that does the work for the heart and lungs when they’ve been spent.

He’s also recovering now, but when he speaks, you can hear how COVID has weakened him.

"I was perfectly healthy. This thing took me down hard," he said. "Stay safe and listen to what they're telling you about watching. Yeah, it's not a show and everything is no joke whatsoever. This disease is not, you know, not a hoax. This is true."

A warning — surgery video in this story may be graphic. Lung transplant surgery is complicated, but doctors say it takes even longer in coronavirus patients because of how the virus shreds the patient's lungs. 

"Usually we do these bio lung transplant in six to eight hours. We were taking more than those, like around 10 hours or so. So that, I think, reveals how difficult the day section was with all the scarring and damage from the virus," said Dr. Rafael Garza Castillon, a thoracic surgeon at  Northwestern Medicine.

The recovery is long too — with anti-rejection meds, physical therapy and more. 

Both patients have GoFundMe accounts asking for help. Kuhn’s family says his benefits are wiped out and his medical bills are over $2 million.

For Ramirez, being alive outweighs it all. 

"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," she said.