At just 28, Mayra Ramirez spent more than six weeks under sedation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
On June 5, she became the first coronavirus patient in the United States to receive a double lung transplant, according to The New York Times.
“I’m pretty sure that if I had been at another center, they would have just ended care and let me die,” she said to the media on Wednesday.
Now known as “post-COVID fibrosis,” or “post-ARDS fibrosis,” is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up in small air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. As Health Line explains, this reduces oxygen in the bloodstream and deprives organs of oxygen, which generally necrotizes and destroys them.
In Ramirez’s case, replacing her lungs was the only way to keep her alive.
The Times explains that the surgery is considered “a desperate measure” and that it is only performed when the lung damage is “irreversible,” requiring specific conditions: patients must be sick enough to need a transplant, but also strong enough to survive the operation.
“It’s such a paradigm change,” said Ramirez’s surgeon, Dr. Ankit Bharat, to the media “Lung transplant has not been considered a treatment option for infectious disease, so people need to get a little bit more of a comfort level with it.”
In some cases, Dr. Bharat said, hospitals appeared to have waited too long to recommend a transplant. One patient referred to his center seemed like a good candidate but then had major bleeding into the lungs and kidney failure, and the surgery was no longer feasible.
“I think people need to recognize this option earlier and just start at least talking about it before it gets to that point,” Dr. Bharat said.
In some cases, he said, insurers’ reluctance to cover the surgery or pay for travel to transfer patients led to delays.
A second chance
Before she became ill, Mayra Ramirez worked as a legal assistant for an immigration law firm. Due to the confinement during the pandemic, she worked from home, especially since she had an autoimmune condition known as optic neuromyelitis, the treatment of which suppresses the immune system.
Having symptoms of coronavirus, she was reluctant to attend a care facility and had to be hospitalized. But on April 26, when her temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit, “she was so weak that she fell when she tried to walk,” the Times reports.
By the time she was admitted to the hospital, her difficulty in breathing was such that she needed almost immediate assistance in breathing, for which patients must be sedated.
During those six weeks, Ramirez remembers having constant nightmares. Her body struggled to get rid of the virus and began to be plagued by bacterial infections.
After 10 hours of surgery and with new lungs, the struggle for recovery has been, she told the media, a constant attempt to breathe and contain the exhaustion of her body, which often runs out of energy.
With the help of her mother and the company of her pets, Ramirez recognizes the second chance life has given her.
“I definitely feel like I have a purpose,” Ramirez said. “It may be to help other people going through the same situation that I am, maybe even just sharing my story and helping young people realize that if this happened to me it could happen to them, and to protect themselves and protect others around them who are more vulnerable. And to motivate and help other centers around the world to realize that lung transplantation is an option for terminally ill COVID patients.”
With information from the New York Times.