Earlier this year, the National Foundation for Transplants covered the story of the first COVID-19 lung transplant patient, Mayra Ramirez. Since Mayra’s double lung transplant, there have been five more successful lung transplants performed in the United States and six others outside of the United States.
When the pandemic struck the country in March, transplant surgeons were at a loss as the coronavirus wreaked havoc on lungs in the most severe cases like with Mayra. Inflammation from the disease left her lungs completely plastered to tissue around them, the heart, the chest wall, and diaphragm. Since her operation, transplant surgeons have learned a lot. They’ve received answers to some of their most pressing questions: What if the virus lingered in the body, and simply infected the new lungs? Could a transplant be a long-term fix?
However, on the flip side, COVID-19 slowed the transplant of donated lungs as transplant professionals paused to ensure there were proper guidelines in place to make transplants safe.
Katherine Ellen Foley, who covers the medical beat for MSN, reports, “Even if doctors wanted to try a lung transplant on a Covid-19 patient, organ donation came to a screeching halt at the beginning of the US pandemic, and transplant rates plummeted across the board. ‘Most centers either shut down or really slowed down,’ Bharat says. ‘It was terrible.’” Dr. Ankit Bharat, serves as the chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the lung transplant program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
This year, twelve (12) non-COVID NFT patients havereceived lung transplants. Half occurred after the pandemic struck the United States. During the same period last year (January through October), thirty-nine (39) NFT patients received their lung transplant. Data reveals a lung transplant can cost well over $929,600 for a single-lung transplant to $1,295,900 for a double-lung transplant to well over $2,600,000 when combined with another organ like a heart. For the most part, the majority of transplant costs are covered by either public or private insurance. However, patients do incur out-of-pocket cost for copays related to care. After the transplant, they’ll be required to take daily a cocktail of immunosuppressant drugs to protect their new lungs.
The 209 NFT patients waiting for a transplant anticipate incurring collective out-of-pocket cost in excess of $6,000,000. This amount includes hospital deposits and other medical copays. Lives saved by organ transplants remain one of the miracles of life and is only made possible by organ donors who leave behind the gift of life.
Now that lung transplants are providing second chances to patients who are suffering the most from the coronavirus, the transplant medical community are looking at how they can safely expand the criteria for lung donation.
Foley reported in her MSN article, “Now, donations are roughly back to normal levels. And luckily, there are ways that pulmonologists can try to increase the number of eligible lungs. During the pandemic, many transplant surgeons are considering expanding the criteria for lung donation, Bharat explains. In some cases, it may be appropriate to take donors who have smoked (although not heavily), or are as old as 65. Before, the cutoff age was 55, and smokers weren’t considered at all.
Today, it’s also possible to accept lung donations from people who were living with hepatitis C, which was also considered too risky before last year. And more transplant centers are equipping themselves with machines necessary to perform ex vivo lung perfusion, or EVLP. These machines essentially act as incubators for donated lungs, giving them time to heal from an infection before they get transplanted into a new recipient.”
You can help support those in need of a lung transplant by giving to the National Foundation for Transplants Lifeline Relief Fund created to help NFT continue its work during COVID-19, Greatest Need Fund which supports transplant patients in general, or give in honor of a specific patient.