Hospitals across the country are increasingly performing double lung transplants for critically ill coronavirus patients.
Many people who contract COVID-19 have so much scarring and damage done to their lungs that their hope of survival is a new set of organs.
And Northwestern Medicine, in Chicago, which was the first center to perform a double lung transplant in the US for a COVID-19 patient – has done more than half of the operations with seven in total.
Doctors say they have at least three more transplants planned at the hospital and believe that, in the future, the surgeries may become standard for patients who are on the brink of death.
Kari Wegg, 48, from Westfield, Indiana, is one of seven people in the US who have undergone double lung transplants at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago after battling COVID-19. Pictured: Wegg after her double lung transplant
At least 11 have been performed in total and first-ever patient was Mayra Ramirez, a 28-year-old Chicago native (left) who spent six weeks on a ventilator before receiving a new set of lungs. Others are patients like Andrew Lawrence, 54 (right), an ER physician from Texas, who had to relocate for the surgery.
‘Lung transplant is sort of the ultimate final therapy for Covid-related complications,’ Dr Samuel Kim, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine, told DailyMail.com.
‘Not obviously everyone needs a lung transplant…some people do and some people don’t.
‘It ay be the sickest patients doing transplants right now but we may see more patients with chronic destruction of the lungs undergoing this procedure…could be in the thousands or tens of thousands.’
Lung transplants are much more difficult for COVID-19 patients because of the severity of damage the virus does to the organ.
Additionally, doctors have to wait for the virus to clear the body but make sure the patient’s organs don’t fail.
On a national ranking system out of 100, which tracks how sick transplant patients are, COVID-19 patients usually fall between 80 and 90.
Dr Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, told DailyMail.com the damage to their lungs looks like a ‘bomb blast has gone off.’
He said that for most non-COVID patients undergoing lung transplants, the structure of the lungs is still well preserved enough that doctors can identify all the parts.
But coronavirus patients often have so much damage and complications such as lung collapse that all that is left are pieces of necrotic tissues and bags of pus.
Kim added: ‘Their bodies are barely keeping them alive. There’s a kind of destruction of the lungs I’ve never seen in my life.’
The team was initially skeptical about performing lung transplants on coronavirus patients due to the risks of the procedure.
However, this changed in June when 28-year-old Mayra Ramirez, from Chicago, who spent six weeks on a ventilator and her lungs showed signs of irreversible damage.
In April, Ramirez started experiencing signs of the virus such as diarrhea, loss of taste and smell, and a fever. After visiting the ER, she tested positive for COVID-19 and was soon after placed on a ventilator. Pictured: Ramirez in the hospital, left, and after her transplant, right
Her mother agreed to let doctors perform the transplant and, five months later, Ramirez (pictured) says she feels well
In late April, Ramirez started experiencing signs such as diarrhea, loss of taste and smell, and a fever.
She visited at the ER at Northwestern, where staff checked her vitals and found her oxygen levels were extremely low.
‘The biggest decision was when we saw her picture when she was not sick. Her picture with her mom when she was at work,’ said Kim.
‘She was a young beautiful woman who a few weeks ago was so full of life in 20s. That’s when it dawned on us that we have to do something radically different.
‘This was the only chance she had…I thought it was a risk worth taking.’
The surgery was a success and although the road to recovery was long and difficult, Ramirez says she is doing well.
Two weeks ago, she shared on Facebook: ‘[Five] months since I received my new lungs due to Covid-19. Time has flown by! Happy [five]-month breathday to me.’
However, not all patients are local. Some patients are from other state that need to relocate for a year.
Wegg (pictured, with her husband) tested positive for the virus in July and her health began rapidly deteriorating
Ten weeks after testing positive, Wegg (left and right) was transferred to Northwestern and received a double lung transplant. She is currently recovering and says she hopes to soon see her sons again in person
One of those patients is Kari Wegg, 48, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse from Westfield, Indiana, who was the sixth patient at Northwestern to receive a transplant.
Wegg tested positive for COVID-19 in July and developed symptoms such as shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell.
Her husband, Rodney, and her two sons – ages 13 and 14 – also contracted the virus but developed mild or no symptoms at all.
‘I got severely ill. My lungs could not function properly,’ Wegg told DailyMail.com.
‘I was on the highest level of support that they had. I ended up needing a heart-lung bypass machine.’
These machines, called Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine, pump and oxygenate a patient’ blood outside the body, which allows the heart and lungs to rest.
One of the doctors at Wegg’s home hospital – St Vincent’s – said there was no hope for her recovery and to pull the plug.
However, the day before her birthday, she was transferred to Northwestern Hospital and spent just a few days on the transplant list.
On October 2, ten weeks after initially testing positive, Wegg woke up with a new set of lungs.
‘I told her: ‘These lungs are your birthday present,” and she said: “Well, one lung is for my birthday and the other lung is for your birthday,”‘ Rodney told DailyMail.com.
‘And I was like: “No, those lungs are your birthday present and you being alive is my birthday present.”‘
The mother-of-two, who is currently expected to be in rehab for three to four weeks says the first thing she is looking forward to doing is hugging her sons.
She said she wants to urge anyone who will listen to diligently wash their hands, wear a mask and to stay at home when possible – and sign up to be an organ donor.
‘You can save so many people’s lives if people would just do that,’ Wegg said.
‘I am truly and extremely grateful to the family of my organ donor because without them I might not be alive.’
In July, after Lawrence tested positive, he was soon transferred to a hospital in San Antonio, where he was told he likely needed a double lung transplant in Chicago. Pictured: Lawrence after his transplant
Lawrence is the fifth patient to undergo a double lung transplant at Northwestern and recently managed to walk one minute on a treadmill (pictured)
Another patient, 54-year-old Andrew Lawrence, likely contracted the virus while treating patients in a hospital in the Rio Grande Valley.
When Lawrence fell ill in July, and subsequently tested positive, he believed he would recover within two weeks.
He was soon after transferred to a hospital in San Antonio, where he was told he likely needed a double lung transplant, but that he needed to go to Chicago
Lawrence was the fifth patient to undergo a double lung transplant at Northwestern and recently managed to walk one minute on a treadmill.
Bharat told DailyMail.com it is an encouraging sign because it means Lawrence is on his way to returning to his previous level of activity like patients before him.
‘One of the things we’ve learned from having taken care of these patients is – even in the seven transplants we’ve done – the diversity is quite tremendous,’ he said.
‘What this has reminded us is this Covid can affect anybody. While the young healthy people are less likely to get it, their risk is not zero.’
- To donate to Kari Wegg’s GoFundMe, you can click here