Doctors say they believe it's one of the first times this operation has been performed on a patient with coronavirus. And it's offering hope for others.
For six weeks, the ICU team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago worked around the clock to keep a young woman in her 20s alive. Before COVID-19, doctors say she was healthy but took an immuno-suppressant medication. Still, it was hard to understand how the virus had decimated her lungs.
"By early June, the patient's lungs showed irreversible damage and a lung transplant was the only option," said Chief of Thoracic Surgery Dr. Ankit Bharat.
Doctors had tried other therapies, but the disease progressed. To save her life, they put her on a ventilator and later a lung bypass system called ECMO.
"From that point on our team in the ICU was able to use both these machines to support her body for over a month, making sure her other organs receive sufficient blood flow and oxygen," said pulmonary and critical care specialist Dr. Elizabeth Malsin.
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Before a transplant, the patient had to test negative. It took her body five weeks to clear the virus. Within 48 hours after being placed on the lung transplant list, she matched with a donor.
"This important milestone indicates that while the transplant procedure in these patients are quite challenging, technically, it can be done safely," Bharat said.
During the 10-hour surgery, the transplant team saw first-hand how the virus had created swiss cheese-like holes in her lungs. Her doctors say she is recovering well.
"Yesterday she smiled and told me, just one sentence. She said 'Doc, thank you for not giving up on me.' As healthcare providers, there's nothing more gratifying to hear," Bharat.
The successful transplant opens the door for other COVID-19 patients and highlights the need for organ donation. How patients will be selected still needs more study but doctors say transplants will most likely be reserved for young, otherwise healthy patients in which other therapies have failed.