Warning: This story contains graphic images.
CHICAGO -- A woman in her 20s received a new set of lungs after suffering “irreversible damage” from the novel coronavirus.
Northwestern Medicine in Chicago announced the procedure, which took place on June 5. It was the first of its kind in the U.S. since the pandemic began, as only a few other COVID-19 survivors, in China and Europe, have received lung transplants.
The patient spent six weeks on a ventilator and on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a life support machine that does the work of the heart and lungs, before her operation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“A lung transplant was her only chance for survival,” said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program.
Doctors said the COVID-19 patient, identified as a woman in her 20s, was otherwise pretty healthy. An X-ray of her lungs are pictured in a provided image. (Photo credit: Northwestern Memorial Hospital)
Bharat performed the operation and said the 10-hour procedure was challenging because the virus had left her lungs full of holes and almost fused to the chest wall.
The patient was not identified but Bharat said she had recently moved to Chicago from North Carolina to be with her boyfriend. She was otherwise healthy, but her condition rapidly deteriorated after she was hospitalized in late April.
Doctors waited six weeks for her body to clear the virus before considering a transplant.
“For many days, she was the sickest person in the COVID ICU – and possibly the entire hospital,” Dr. Beth Malsin, pulmonary and critical care specialist at the hospital, explained. “There were so many times, day and night, our team had to react quickly to help her oxygenation and support her other organs to make sure they were healthy enough to support a transplant if and when the opportunity came.”
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.
The Chicago patient was in bad shape, with signs that her heart, kidneys and liver were beginning to fail, so she quickly moved up in line, Bharat said.
The transplant team listed her for a double-lung transplant and within 48 hours were able to perform the life-saving procedure.
A provided photo shows the COVID-19 patient’s lung. (Photo credit: Northwestern Memorial Hospital)
The patient remains on a ventilator while her body heals, but she is well enough to visit with family via phone video. Doctors say her chances for a normal life are good.
“We want other transplant centers to know that while the transplant procedure in these patients is quite technically challenging, it can be done safely, and it offers the terminally ill COVID-19 patients another option for survival,” Bharat said.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.