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Woman Shares Story Of Double-Lung Transplant To Treat COVID-19

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lung transplants have saved the lives of a small number of COVID patients, and Mayra Ramirez is the first in the U.S. to get a double-lung transplant. It was back in June, but Ms. Ramirez only recently shared her identity and her extraordinary story with Christine Herman of Illinois Public Media.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: Before the pandemic struck, Mayra Ramirez had built a life for herself in Chicago. She was 28 and worked as a paralegal at an immigration law firm. She loved walking her dogs and hanging out with her boyfriend. When Illinois's governor issued a stay-at-home order in March, it was easy for her to work from home. She hardly ever went outside. Mayra does have a neurological condition that she manages with a medication that could have suppressed her immune system, but otherwise, she's healthy. And to this day, she has no idea how she got the coronavirus. It happened sometime in early April.

MAYRA RAMIREZ: I lost sense of taste and smell. I felt very fatigued. I was not able to walk long distances. And that's when I decided to go into the emergency room.

HERMAN: Her oxygen levels were extremely low, and Mayra was given 10 minutes to call her mom to explain she was about to be placed on a ventilator.

RAMIREZ: In Spanish, the word ventilator, (speaking Spanish), is like fan. And so I thought, oh, they're just going to blow some air into me and I'll be OK, maybe have a three-day stay. So I wasn't very worried.

HERMAN: But, in fact, she'd spend the next six weeks heavily sedated with life support machines doing the work of her lungs and heart. She had terrifying dreams that she couldn't distinguish from reality.

RAMIREZ: Most of them involved me drowning, and I attribute that to me not being able to breathe. I had way worse nightmares than that, but I don't wish to share those because they're very explicit.

HERMAN: In early June, Mayra's family was told she may not make it through the night, so they flew in from North Carolina to say goodbye. Then the doctors said they could try a double-lung transplant. Her mother, Nohemi Romero, agreed. She spoke at a recent press conference about the experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NOHEMI ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

HERMAN: She said there are no words to describe the pain of not being by her daughter's side as she struggled for her life and that God gave her the strength to make it through. Northwestern Medicine's Dr. Ankit Bharat performed the 10-hour procedure.

ANKIT BHARAT: Most patients are quite sick going into lung transplant, but she was so sick - in fact, I can say without hesitation the sickest patient I've transplanted.

HERMAN: Mayra was extremely sick, but she was also young, just 28. And aside from her lungs, her other organs were relatively OK. Bharat says most COVID-19 patients are not like Mayra. They're not candidates for transplants because of their age and other chronic health problems that make it less likely a transplant will succeed.

When Mayra first woke up, she was disoriented. She couldn't move or talk. It would be weeks before she understood what had happened to her. She's doing better now but probably faces at least a year of rehab therapy before she can function independently.

ROMERO: At this time, I'm not certain of the permanent damage that's been made to my body. I don't even want to begin to talk about the pills because there are so many.

HERMAN: Seventeen different pills, some of them several times a day. Some are to prevent her body from rejecting the new lungs. And she also takes depression and anxiety meds because she has so many nightmares and panic attacks.

RAMIREZ: Slowly but surely I'm able to get through them with the help of therapy. It's just something that I don't want to relive ever again.

HERMAN: COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed Latinos, who are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that expose them to the virus and are more likely to lack social protections, like health insurance. Even with her work-from-home job, Mayra wasn't spared. And while insurance covered some of her hospitalization, she still owes tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Mayra is eager to get back to her job and her life. She's even asked her surgeon to take her skydiving someday.

RAMIREZ: It's funny because Dr. Bharat actually used to work at a skydiving company when he was younger. And so he promised me that hopefully within a year he can get me there.

HERMAN: And she has every intention of holding him to that promise.

For NPR News, I'm Christine Herman in Urbana, Ill.

SIMON: That story comes from NPR's partnership with Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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