Coronavirus: Illinois frontline worker 1st to receive ‘COVID-to-COVID’ double-lung transplant

GLENDALE HEIGHTS, Ill. — More than six months after doctors told Renato Aquino’s family it might be time to tell their loved one battling COVID-19 goodbye, the Glendale Heights, Illinois man is expected to make a full recovery from a first-of-its-kind double-lung transplant in the United States.

Aquino, who was hospitalized with the virus one year ago and spent months on a ventilator before being placed on life support, is believed to be the first known recipient of a “COVID-to-COVID double lung transplant,” Northwestern University stated in a news release.

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Aquino, 65, immigrated to Illinois from the Philippines to pursue a career in medicine 30 years ago and worked on the pandemic’s front lines as a blood technician before falling ill, Today reported.

“I was a healthy guy with no underlying health conditions, but my symptoms started with a fever and quickly got worse. On May 14 (2020), I called my niece and said, ‘I can’t breathe. I’m going to the emergency department.’ From that day on, my life completely changed,” Aquino stated.

Tasha Sundstrom, Aquino’s niece, learned that Northwestern Medicine was performing lung transplants on COVID-19 patients and mentioned it to her uncle’s doctors, who then got Aquino transferred to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital in February, Today reported.

Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine, confirmed to the outlet that Aquino’s donated lungs came from a donor who had a mild-to-moderate case of COVID-19 and later died from unrelated medical issues.

“When our team got the call that lungs were available from a donor who previously had the virus, we knew a ‘COVID-to-COVID’ lung transplant was his best shot at survival,” Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, stated.

“After spending one week on the transplant wait-list, Renato received beautiful, healthy lungs – marking a new milestone for lung transplantation. There’s no evidence of any reactivation of COVID-19 in Renato’s lungs, and he’s on track for a full recovery,” Bharat added.

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Doctors now say they expect Aquino to make a full recovery, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

“I feel wonderful,” Aquino said during a Friday news conference celebrating his recovery, thanking his doctors repeatedly for saving his life, the newspaper reported.

“I’m not done living yet and have a lot of good to share with the world. I love taking care of people and making them happy. I’m ready to get back to being the ‘fun uncle’ who makes silly faces and jokes with my nieces and nephews. I’ve missed out on so much this past year – but thanks to my medical team and organ donor, I have a lot more to gain,” he added.

According to Northwestern Medicine, the first-known double-lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient in the United States happened at Northwestern Memorial on June 5, 2020. To date, Northwestern Medicine surgeons have completed 20 double-lung transplants on COVID-19 survivors – the most performed at any hospital in the world – and 20 patients are expected to make full recoveries and return to their daily lives.

Meanwhile, Garza-Castillon said Aquino’s case is proof that in light of the obstacles created by the pandemic, “we need to get creative and maximize our [organ] donor pool.”

“This is important because there is already a large supply and demand gap for organ donors, as well as increased demand for donor lungs now with the pandemic,” Garza-Castillon told Today.

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