Woman in Chicago receives nation's first coronavirus-related double lung transplant

CHICAGO (WPVI) -- Surgeons in Chicago have given a new set of lungs to a young woman with severe lung damage from the coronavirus.

"I am happy to report the patient is stable condition, and improving everyday," said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Northwestern Medicine on Thursday announced the procedure, which took place last Friday. Only a few other COVID-19 survivors, in China and Europe, have received lung transplants.

The Chicago patient is in her 20s and was on a ventilator and heart-lung machine for 6 weeks. Her lungs were severely and irreversibly damaged.

The rest of her body was being supported by a ventilator and ECMO.

"Oxygen is going to be delivered through this green line," explains Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern about ECMO, short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

It's a life-saving machine that does the work of the heart and lungs when a patient's body can't.

On the floor, nurses stepped in to connect the patient with her family as best as possible by FaceTime.

Doctors waited six weeks for her body to clear the virus before considering a transplant.

As soon as she tested negative, she was put on the transplant list.

There were signs her heart, kidneys and liver were beginning to fail, so she quickly moved up in line, Bharat said.

And a match came in 48 hours.

She was otherwise pretty healthy, but her condition rapidly deteriorated after she was hospitalized in late April.

"The 10-hour procedure was challenging because the virus had left her lungs full of holes and almost fused to the chest wall," said Bharat, who performed the operation.

She remains on a ventilator while her body heals but is well enough to visit with family via phone video and doctors say her chances for a normal life are good.

"We are anticipating that she will have a full recovery," said Dr. Rade Tomic, medical director of the hospital's lung transplant program.

The patient was not identified but Bharat said she had recently moved to Chicago from North Carolina to be with her boyfriend.

"Yesterday she smiled at me and said one sentence, she said, 'Doc, thank you for not giving up on me,'" he noted.

Lungs accounted for just 7% of the nearly 40,000 U.S. organ transplants last year.

They are typically hard to find and patients often wait weeks on the transplant list.
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