Woman is 1st person in WI to get double lung transplant due to COVID-19

A Milwaukee woman spent a third of last year in a hospital bed battling COVID-19, culminating with life-saving surgery. Her discharge from the hospital was a memorable end to her frightening experience. She is now sharing her experience with an in-person interview.

Nestled in the corner of her family room on Milwaukee’s south side, 52-year-old Carmen Lerma works from home, making telephone calls. It is a scene many of us are familiar with since the pandemic changed our lives last year. But Lerma’s life changed more than most.

Carmen Lerma

"They said, go home and quarantine just to be safe," Lerma recalled.

On July 13, 2020, Lerma tested positive for coronavirus. Three days later...

"I woke up in the hospital with the ventilators and all kinds of cords everywhere. I had about 31% oxygen in my body," Lerma said.

Carmen Lerma

Carmen Lerma

The virus hit Lerma hard. She was already battling a kidney infection; her immune system was compromised. Lerma spent 45 days in the ICU at Ascension St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee -- her nose raw to the bone from ventilators.

"There were days that I didn’t think I was going to make it out of there," Lerma said.

Then came what Lerma feared would be her last breath.

"Your lungs basically get hard," Lerma said. "So when you’re breathing, your lungs expand. Mine were not expanding."

Lerma's only option to survive was a double lung transplant. Transferred to UW Health in Madison, doctors say Lerma was the first person in the state to undergo the procedure because of COVID-19. Lerma was on the transplant waiting list for a week. The surgery was complete in 12 hours.

UW Health

"[Doctors] said, 'OK, we’re going to remove your tube. I need you to take a real deep breath and when you’re ready just breathe and let it out,'" Lerma said. 

It wasn’t until November when Lerma was finally able to go home and start her new life as a COVID survivor. It was an exhale on a whole other level.

Carmen Lerma

Lerma's new life does not mirror the old.

"In the morning, immediately when I get up, I thank God for another opportunity to take another breath and life. But then you grab in your hand all the medications," Lerma said. 

52 pills a day keep Lerma alive. She said a month’s supply of the anti-rejection medication alone costs $13,000. It is Lerma's faith and family that keep this mother of two and grandmother of three going. Coronavirus came close to taking it all away.  

"Don’t take life for granted. Kiss your grandparents, your kids. Take care of your parents.  Make sure you do the right thing. Life is never guaranteed," Lerma said.

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Lerma wore a mask during our interview because she said her new lungs mean it is possible she could get COVID again.

On Friday, March 5, Lerma received her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Lerma hopes her story will inspire others to not only get vaccinated but also continue COVID precautions.