COVID-19 leading to spike in lung transplants

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- COVID-19 has left thousands of Americans with badly damaged internal organs.

For many, the lungs are damaged beyond repair. As we learn in this week's Moves in Medicine, transplants are becoming more common.

"My ancestry goes back to the 1700s in this area," said Thomas Williams.

Williams is proud of his family's deep roots in the Bass River, New Jersey area. And he's especially proud of his 33 years in law enforcement.

In January, the now-retired Williams was recovering from vascular surgery when he contracted COVID.

"I thought it was like a flu or something, or just something from the recent femoral surgery," he said.

Williams was transferred to Temple University Hospital, when his lungs didn't improve after weeks at a hospital near his home.

Dr. Sameep Sehgal, a transplant pulmonologist, said most COVID patients recover, however, this scenario isn't unusual.

"COVID is a slightly different disease because it happens so fast, and patients get sick so quickly," he said. "If we don't see recovery, and we see significant persistent damage, usually at about 6 to 8 weeks after the initial infection, depending how severe the disease is, at that point of time, we should start considering transplant."

But lung damage isn't the only deciding factor for a transplant. A person must be healthy enough to deal with the medications and rehab therapy after the transplant.

"So anyone who has bad heart disease, or kidney failure, or any other real organ that is damaged, would not be a lung transplant candidate," said Dr. Sehgal.

Fortunately, Williams qualified, and just days after going onto the transplant list, he received a new lung.

He's still weak but savoring the little things in life.

"I got to see my daughter's 21st birthday," he said. "Right now, I'm looking to get well enough to get my boat in the water."

So far, Temple has done five COVID-related lung transplants. And more than a hundred have been done nationwide. As long as COVID is around, surgeons expect to do more.
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