Carmen Lerma is currently recovering from transplant surgery more than four months after the coronavirus almost killed her.

By Claire Gillespie
November 09, 2020
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Carmen Lerma tested positive for COVID-19 in July and spent 45 days on a ventilator fighting for her life. But that was only the start of her COVID-19 journey.

After getting off the ventilator, Lerma, 52, was told by doctors that her lungs were so damaged by the coronavirus, she needed a double lung transplant. After weeks of waiting, the community organizer from Milwaukee had the transplant surgery on October 21, and she's currently recovering.

“The next year is crucial for recuperation,” Lerma’s brother, Masrio Ortiz, tells Health. “Carmen is unable to drive or lift anything for the next 6-8 weeks. But she’s doing amazing on her road to recovery, and doctors have discharged her from the hospital ahead of schedule.”

While awaiting the transplant, Lerma shared her story on Facebook, where she revealed that her battle with coronavirus started when she passed out on July 16.

“When I woke up, I recall the ICU doctors say to me that I must have someone watching over me from above because 31% oxygen in my body was for me to be in a coma… I spent 45 days in ICU with a ventilator on my face all day and night in order to breathe (sic),” she wrote on October 6.

Lerma continued that she lost 40 pounds because she had trouble eating. She also developed blisters and sores on her face from the medical equipment, and was “in a rehab center learning how to breathe and walk again.”

Because of the damage to her lungs from the virus, she was transferred to another hospital, where she received the double lung transplant. While waiting, she told local news station WISNthat she didn't have any underlying health conditions that made her more prone to severe COVID-19, but she did quit smoking several years ago.

On October 12, Lerma gave her Facebook followers an update from her hospital bed, thanking everyone who had donated to the GoFundMe page set up to cover her medical, travel, and recovery costs. “Even though she has insurance, the costs are going to be enormous,” wrote Don Cohen, who organized the fundraiser. It’s one of many local efforts to raise money for Lerma, who is described by Cohen as “a friend to the entire community for many years.”

Lerma isn't the first COVID-19 survivor to need a double lung transplant. Surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago performed this surgery on another patient in June. The patient, a woman in her 20s, was seriously ill when her lungs were replaced with donor lungs. “If she didn’t get the transplant, she would not be alive,” Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director at the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, said during a press conference following the procedure. 

Though it's not a common treatment for COVID-19 survivors, a double lung transplant is more routine than you might think. Hassan Nemeh, MD, surgical director of thoracic organ transplant at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, regularly performs this procedure in seriously ill patients. However, it’s considered a last resort treatment. “If there is any other treatment other than lung transplantation, we usually do that first,” Dr. Nemeh previously told Health. “But if the patient is going to die for sure or they have a 50% chance of survival over the next year or two, this is when we want to do a lung transplant.”

Dr. Bharat said more research is needed on whether a double lung transplant could be a potential treatment for patients with severe COVID-19. "We want other transplant centers to know that while the transplant procedure in these patients is quite technically challenging, it can be done safely, and it offers the terminally ill COVID-19 patients another option for survival,” he said during the press conference. And it’s definitely not a procedure that’s suitable for everybody.

“To get a lung transplant, you have to be young and otherwise healthy,” Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, previously told Health. “The majority of patients with severe cases of COVID-19 are elderly and wouldn’t be eligible for a lung transplant anyway because of their age and comorbidities.” 

Lerma hopes sharing her experience will encourage others to take all recommended precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

"Keep the faith and don’t give up,” she tells Health, via a message from her brother. “Stay positive, make sure to wear your masks, and stay your distance. This virus is not something to be ignored. It’s important to come together and do the right thing. Stay home if you don’t have to go anywhere, wash your hands, and make sure if you have any signs, check yourselves. Think about those around you." 

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