After months on a ventilator, Renato Aquino, 65, is on the verge of recovery after becoming the first known patient with COVID-19 to receive a “COVID-to-COVID double lung transplant” in the United States .
Aquino, who immigrated from the Philippines to Illinois to pursue a career in medicine 30 years ago, has worked on the front lines of the pandemic as a blood technician. On May 14, 2020, he went to the hospital because he was suffering from shortness of breath due to the coronavirus.
In a press release from Northwestern Medicine, Aquino explained, “I was a healthy man with no underlying health problem, but my symptoms started with a fever and quickly got worse. On May 14th, I called my niece and said, “I can’t breathe – I’m going to the emergency room. From that day on, my life changed completely.
Aquino was placed on a ventilator before being transferred to a second hospital and placed on life support. He was placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which supports the lungs and heart. He was on the ECMO for two months, then was put back on a ventilator because his lungs were not recovering well. Doctors have asked her niece, Tasha Sundstrom, to start planning her funeral based on her condition.
“I made all the arrangements and the next day he proved us wrong, he wanted to live,” his niece explained at a Northwestern Medicine press conference.
Sundstrom later learned in a report that Northwestern Medicine performed lunch transplants on COVID-10 patients and mentioned it to his uncle’s doctors, who then transferred Aquino to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in February.
Because COVID-19 had caused permanent damage to his lungs, Aquino was placed on a list of lung donors, according to his doctor, Dr Ankit Bharat, chief of chest surgery at Northwestern Medicine. A week later, Bharath heard the good news that a donor had been found.
The donated lungs were from a donor who had had a mild to moderate case of COVID-19 and who later died of unrelated medical causes. The donor’s history was reviewed to ensure their COVID-19 infection was not a serious case, according to Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, another thoracic surgeon with Northwestern Medicine.
“When our team got the call that lungs were available from a donor who previously had the virus, we knew that a ‘COVID to COVID’ lung transplant was their best chance of survival,” Bharat said, according to the press release. “After spending a week on the transplant waiting list, Renato received beautiful, healthy lungs – marking a new milestone for lung transplantation. There is no evidence of reactivation of COVID-19 in Renato’s lungs and he is on track to a full recovery.
During the press conference, Bharat explained, “With the right procedures in place, it is absolutely safe to use these organs (from a donor who has had COVID-19).”
Over the past year, doctors have made strides in treating patients with COVID-19. Last summer, a 28-year-old woman became the first COVID-19 patient in the country to receive a life-saving double lung transplant. This year, a 24-year-old father of three is recovering from COVID-19 after receiving a single kidney and double lung transplant.
Aquino spoke about his life-saving surgery at the press conference, saying, “Thank you, that’s not enough. “
Now that Aquino is out of the hospital, he says he feels “wonderful” and is ready for his second act. After all, there is one thing in the world that he expects the most: karaoke!