Some COVID patients get second shot at life thanks to lung transplants

In this photo from May 1, 2020, Dr. Sam Pope, a pulmonary critical care physician, and director of the medical ICU at Hartford Hospital, holds a printed X-ray illustrating double lung pneumonia typical in COVID-19 patients. A year into the pandemic, doctors have turned to double-lung transplants as a way to save COVID-19 patients in several states, including Illinois, Texas and Washington, D.C., according to Kaiser Health News. Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant/TNS

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Greg Borden knew that COVID-19 would wreak havoc on his body if he caught it, but he never expected it would take his lungs in the process.

After a year of “living in a bubble,” Borden, 40, of Enon, Ohio, caught the virus in mid-November.

“When COVID hit me, my breathing was so decimated,” he said. “I could hardly walk or move around.”

Borden’s symptoms got so bad that he was forced to call paramedics out to his house one day that month. His oxygen levels were so low that he said doctors told him most people would pass out without any assistance breathing.

After Borden was hospitalized, doctors took a scan of his lungs that revealed a buildup of scar tissue. Soon afterward, they told him he’d need a rare double-lung transplant.

Borden already had overcome testicular cancer and chronic pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure affecting the artery that runs from the lungs to the heart and causes chest pain and shortness of breath. But hearing the news that he needed a double-lung transplant was still a shock.

He underwent the operation on Dec. 12, following his battle with the virus, marking a quick turn of events common in COVID-19 patients who need a transplant, said Dr. David Nunley, a pulmonary disease specialist at the Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. Nunley was one member of a team of health-care professionals who worked with Borden.

While Borden was the first, about 20 patients since November have been referred by doctors at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center for lung transplants following battles with COVID-19, Nunley said.

And Nunley expects the number of patients who need new lungs due to COVID-19 to increase in coming months.

“When the pandemic started, we were all wondering how this was going to affect people,” Nunley said. “We’re certainly trying to consider everyone referred.”

Doctors across the country have predicted the same rise. Due to the seriousness of the procedure and the fact that recipients have to take anti-rejection medication for life, a lung transplant is often considered a last resort by doctors.

A year into the pandemic though, doctors have turned to double-lung transplants in particular as a way to save COVID-19 patients in several states, including Illinois, Texas and Washington, D.C., according to Kaiser Health News.

With seemingly no comprehensive data available yet, the pandemic’s full impact on lung transplants remains unclear.

In 2020, doctors performed 2,539 lung transplants in the U.S., according to data from the American Lung Association. That’s down from the 2,714 performed the year before.

The decline is likely a result of hospitals limiting and delaying procedures to preserve resources when the pandemic began, James Martinez, a spokesman for the association said via email. The association doesn’t track lung transplants needed as the result of COVID-19, Martinez said.

As of March 29, there were 3,000 Ohioans waiting for an organ donation, including 700 in central Ohio. Throughout the state, there were 64 individuals waiting for lung transplants and four waiting for heart and lung transplants, according to Lifeline of Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that coordinates the donation of human organs and tissue.

It’s difficult to say whether the need for lung donations is increasing yet or not, said Andrew Mullins, chief operating officer for Lifeline of Ohio. Regardless, it’s important people register to become organ donors, and with April being “Donate Life Month,” Mullins said now is a good time to do so.

“There’s always a need, whether it’s because of COVID or any other disease,” Mullins said.

Though it may take more time to tell whether COVID-19 causes a long-term jump in lung transplants, the toll the virus takes on a person’s lungs is clear.

Typically, it takes several years for smoking or a lung condition, such as the pulmonary hypertension that Borden once had, to cause the organs to massively deteriorate, Nunley said. But with COVID-19, that decline is happening far quicker than anyone expected, he said.

The damage has been so great and occurred so fast in some patients that they’ll often be referred for lung transplants while they’re still battling the virus in intensive care units, Nunley said.

“It’s usually a very, very slow progression of scarring, sometimes over years where this particular scarring from COVID is happening very rapidly,” Nunley said of other lung conditions compared with the virus. “Our time frame is really compressed.”

In people who suffered severe bouts of COVID-19, Nunley said doctors are seeing significant inflammation, congestion and scarring. That scarring prevents the lungs from absorbing oxygen, which in turn means the rest of a person’s body, such as Borden’s, isn’t getting the air it needs to survive.

Borden is past that point now though. With his newly donated lungs, he no longer suffers from the damage caused by COVID-19 or pulmonary hypertension.

After nearly four months of recovery, first in the hospital and then in a rehabilitation center, he’s finally back home and looking forward to doing some of the things he used to, such as going to Kings Island with his two kids or going swimming when the weather warms up. Borden hopes his story will inspire others to register as organ donors and potentially save someone like him.

“Organ donation is a good way to be able to give that gift of life. ... It’s very appreciated,” Borden said. “I’m obviously new to the whole donation process, but I’m indebted to the donor who was able to give me a second chance.”

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