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First Coronavirus Patient To Get Double-Lung Transplant Gets To Go Home

Medical professionals around the globe have had a steep learning curve with regards to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has shaken the world in 2020. With hospitals strained to their limits dealing with an influx of patients suffering from a disease never seen before, doctors have been hard pressed to navigate an array of symptoms that can vary greatly from one patient to the next.

While the majority of patients experience respiratory symptoms like coughing, loss of breath, and loss of sense of smell, many others experience digestive problems, develop a rash or discoloration on their fingers or toes, or confusion or loss of speech. In extreme cases, patients might develop pneumonia, or they might get blood clots. Doctors have seen the disease damage not just the lungs, but the kidneys, liver, heart, brain, gastrointestinal tract, and skin. It is a very strange, very serious disease.

Treating such a confounding disease has obviously proven troubling. In one woman's case, doctors determined it would be necessary to give her a double-lung transplant for her to have a hope of survival. The good news is that the transplant has proven successful enough that she has finally made it out of the hospital.

Mayra Ramirez, a 28-year-old paralegal from Chicago, was the first patient to receive a double-lung transplant after contracting COVID-19.

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It was a desperate move on the part of her doctors. Mayra had suffered greatly for the previous six weeks. As she told CNN, she was careful about taking precautions to prevent catching the disease, but caught it anyway.

Things got bad enough for her to head to the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on April 26. Just after she arrived, doctors recognized the danger she was in, so they sedated her and intubated her.

The following six weeks were a nightmare for Mayra, literally.

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That whole time, a ventilator breathed for her. "All I remember was being put to sleep as I was being intubated and then six weeks of complete nightmares," Mayra told CNN. "Some of the nightmares consisted a lot of drowning and I attribute that to not being able to breathe."

She still has no other memories of the time she was at her sickest. When she finally woke up, nurses asked her what day she thought it was. She said May, and the nurses informed her that it was actually mid June.

While she was unconscious, the virus was shredding her lungs.

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When other organs started to fail, her family flew in from North Carolina to say goodbye to her. The last hope for Mayra was to replace both of her lungs.

"This virus overwhelmed Mayra’s lungs. For many days, she was the sickest person in our COVID ICU and possibly the entire hospital," Dr. Beth Malsin said in a press release. "Once Mayra’s body cleared the virus, it became obvious that the lung damage wasn’t going to heal, and we needed to list her for a lung transplant."

Mayra was in the operating room 48 hours after being listed for the transplant.

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The transplant saved her life. "Without the transplant, she would not have made it," Dr. Ankit Bharat, the chief of Thoracic Surgery at Northwestern Medicine, told CNN.

Mayra said that since her transplant, "there hasn’t been a single day where I’ve taken a step back. Yes, it’s taken a mental and physical toll on my body, but even on my lowest days, I’m able to do a little bit more than the day before."

Doctors are hopeful that Mayra's case shows that transplants could be a viable strategy to help other patients survive COVID-19 despite irreversible lung damage.

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Indeed, Northwestern gave another patient, 62-year-old Brian Kuhns, a double-lung transplant as well. He spent even longer in hospital than Mayra, first going to his local emergency room for help on March 18. He went four months without seeing his wife and kids again.

"Before COVID-19, Brian was a pretty healthy guy who loved music, cars and making people laugh," his wife, Nancy, said in a press release. "But he also thought COVID-19 was a hoax. I assure you; Brian’s tune has now changed. COVID-19 is not a hoax. It almost killed my husband."

Although Mayra treated the virus seriously before she was infected, she echoes Nancy's thoughts.

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She was discharged from the hospital on July 8, but she still has a long road ahead of her. She told CNN that she still feels weak and struggles to breathe, and she's continuing to undergo occupational and physical therapy.

"People need to understand that COVID-19 is real. What happened to me can happen to you. So please, wear a mask and wash your hands. If not for you, then do it for others," she said.

h/t: CNN, Northwestern Medicine

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