Human fortitude, meet medical innovation. Stronger together than when apart, this is an unbeatable combination. Like catching lightning in a bottle, it can ultimately result in miraculous outcomes.
While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was aggressively picking up steam in early June, a glimmer of hope emerged from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Their Chief of Thoracic Surgery, Ankit Bharat, M.D., and his ace surgical team successfully performed a double-lung transplant for the very first time on a female patient in her 20s whose lungs were severely and irreversibly damaged by COVID-19.
The news captured the world’s imagination and made headlines globally. “COVID Patient Didn’t Recognize Body After Double Transplant,” reported the Washington Post. “’She Was So Sick’: From COVID-19 Diagnosis to a Double Lung Transplant,” recounted National Public Radio. “Double Lung Transplants Save Lives of Sickest COVID Patients,” declared U.S. News & World Report.
Dr. Bharat, who is an exemplary member of the American Lung Association research family, spoke with us about this tremendous feat in the second episode of our new podcast, Lungcast™. According to Dr. Bharat, “You could see in her face just how kind [she is]. You can’t help but feel for that patient. We knew we had to do everything to save her.” The patient, Mayra Ramirez, had been heavily sedated on a ventilator and another machine – known as ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygen – for six weeks at Northwestern. Her lung function, however, was not improving, while her kidneys and liver were starting to fail. Otherwise young and healthy, the transplant was deemed her only chance for survival.
Exactly one month later, in July, another male COVID-19 patient in his 60s, Brian Kuhns, benefitted from the same lifesaving operation. Like Mayra, he was on a ventilator and ECMO machine for a prolonged period. Having cleared the virus without any underlying medical conditions or other organ damage, Brian was considered an optimal transplant candidate. “The lungs were completely destroyed. If you saw the X-ray, you would think somebody took both lungs out and filled both chest cavities with water or blood,” Dr. Bharat said when discussing Brian’s case. “He’s doing great since discharge. Breathing normally, no oxygen and getting stronger every day.”
“Lungs are the gatekeepers to the body. Lungs are the only organ that are directly exposed to the outside air,” Dr. Bharat continued. “A double-lung transplant is generally considered the most medically complex procedure that can be performed. There’s a very short window that lungs are able to be outside the human body. You have to take the lungs out and implant them within six hours.”
In 2015-2016, Dr. Bharat was a recipient of the Lung Association’s Biomedical Research Grant for his project, titled “The Role of Carbon Dioxide in Stopping Lung Healing After Lung Cancer Surgery.” “[The Lung Association] provided me with a very important opportunity. The grant I received helped me tremendously. As a junior faculty and especially as a surgeon, it’s very hard to get that initial funding. I cannot tell you how helpful it has been. The grant I got is one of the reasons why today I have a big research program and making, I believe, impactful contributions to the field of lung biology,” expressed Dr. Bharat , who is board certified in general surgery and thoracic surgery with an additional body of research focused on lung preservation and transplant immunology.
To hear more about these astonishing transplants in Dr. Bharat’s own words, tune into our Lungcast episode #2 by visiting Lung.org/lungcast. It is a must-listen!
Blog last updated: December 16, 2020