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COVID-19 patients who were first in US to undergo double lung transplants at Northwestern share their stories

Lisa Schencker, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- Mayra Ramirez's family hadn't talked to her in weeks.

The 28-year-old was at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on a ventilator with a severe case of COVID-19. She wasn't allowed visitors. Doctors would call her mother in North Carolina with updates.

Then, one day, her family was told to head to Northwestern as quickly as possible.

"They were told to come, that I wasn't going to make it past the night, so they took the first flight out of Wilmington, N.C.," Ramirez said. "They made the trek just with the intention of saying goodbye."

By the time Ramirez's family arrived, doctors had stabilized her. But they asked her mother to make a decision: Would she allow Ramirez to become the first COVID-19 patient in the country to undergo a double lung transplant?

Her mother, Nohemi Romero, said yes.

 

In June, Ramirez became the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. to undergo a double lung transplant after her lungs were severely damaged by the disease. Ramirez and Brian Kuhns -- a Lake Zurich man who was the second COVID-19 patient to receive a double lung transplant -- spoke publicly about their experiences for the first time at a news conference at Northwestern on Thursday.

Doctors have called that first surgery a "milestone" in care for patients with severe cases of COVID-19. Such transplants aren't right for every critically ill COVID-19 patient, but can be a lifeline for some, said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program. Transplants can be performed on patients who've eliminated the virus and have no other significant organ failure, said Dr. Rafael Garza Castillon, a thoracic surgeon.

Northwestern is now considering performing the procedure on other patients, Castillon said, though he said he could not provide further details.

"We are all learning together and sharing best practices, and now lung transplant is part of COVID-19 care," Bharat said.

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