Northwestern Medicine surgeons have performed what is believed to be the first double lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient.
The patient, a 20-year-old Hispanic woman, spent six weeks in the intensive care unit on a ventilator and a life-support machine that performed the work of her heart and lungs.
“By early June, the patient’s lungs showed irreversible damage and lung transplant was the only option,” Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital said Thursday. “If she didn’t have a transplant, she would not be alive.”
The patient underwent a 10-hour surgery Friday and is in stable condition.
“This important milestone shows the transplant procedure is quite challenging technically, (though) it can be done safely, and it offers terminally ill COVID-19 patients another option for survival,” said Bharat, one of the surgeons who performed the transplant.
During her time at the hospital, the patient was among the sickest in the COVID-19 intensive care unit and the entire hospital, said Beth Malsin, a pulmonary care and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“She is one of the youngest people we’ve seen with this degree of lung damage,” said Malsin, who works in the COVID-19 ICU.
The patient was so sick that she was beginning to develop multiple organ failure as a result of the damage to her lungs, said Bharat. “Once the lungs get permanently damaged, they don’t get better,” he said.
While a double lung transplant was the only option, that decision couldn’t be made by the patient because she was unconscious, according to Bharat.
“Normally, we try to wake up every patient before we offer a lung transplant,” Bharat said. “Her lungs were so badly injured we couldn’t wake her up.”
The patient’s power of attorney approved the procedure. But before the patient could be put on a transplant waitlist, she had to test negative for the virus multiple times.
Hundreds cared for her while her body cleared the virus, said Malsin. Once approved, the surgery was performed 48 hours later.
Typically, a double lung transplant surgery takes 6-7 hours, but this surgery took 10 hours, said Bharat. Even though the patient tested negative for COVID-19, surgical staff took additional precautions, wearing personal protective gear and N95 masks. “It’s not because (we were) worried about her still having the virus. It’s because it was the first time doing it and we didn’t want anyone to be exposed even hypothetically,” said Bharat.
The patient will remain in the hospital for several weeks as she recovers.
“I’m happy to see her recovering well from the lung transplant,” said Bharat. “I’m happy to offer new life for this young patient. We’re hoping she will make a full recovery, however, we’re aware it’s a long process.”