Some Ohio COVID survivors are in need of lung transplants after beating the virus

Greg Borden knew that COVID-19 would devastate his body if he caught it, but he never expected it to cost his lungs in the process.

After a year of “living in a bubble”, 40-year-old Borden from Enon contracted the virus in mid-November.

“When COVID hit me, my breathing was so depleted,” he said. “I could barely walk or move.”

Borden’s symptoms got so bad that he was forced to call paramedicsOne day this month to his house.His oxygen levels were so low that he said the doctors told him that most people would pass out without help with breathing.

After Borden was hospitalized, doctors examined his lungs and found that scar tissue had accumulated. Soon after, they told him he would need a rare double lung transplant.

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Borden had already overcome testicular cancer and chronic pulmonary hypertension. A type of high blood pressure that affects the artery that runs from the lungs to the heart, causing chest pain and shortness of breath. But hearing the news that he needed a double lung transplant was still a shock.

Dr. David Nunley, a lung disease specialist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical University, said he had surgery on Dec. 12 after battling the virus, which will quickly reverse the situation in COVID-19 patients who have had a transplant need, frequently occurring events represents Center. Nunley was part of a team of health professionals who worked with Borden.

While Borden was the first, about 20 patients have been referred for lung transplants by doctors at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center since November after battling COVID-19, Nunley said.

And Nunley expects the number of patients who will need new lungs due to COVID-19 will increase in the coming months.

Dr.  David Nunley, a lung disease specialist at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, believes the need for lung transplants will increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic started we all wondered how this would affect people,” Nunley said. “We are certainly trying to take into account all those referred.”

Doctors across the country have predicted the same increase. Because of the severity of the procedure and the fact that recipients must take rejection medication for life, a lung transplant is often viewed by doctors as a last resort.

A year after the pandemic began, doctors have specifically turned to Kaiser lung transplants to rescue COVID-19 patients in several states, including Illinois, Texas and Washington, DC, according to Kaiser Health News.

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In the absence of comprehensive data appearing to be available, the full impact of the pandemic on lung transplants remains unclear.

In 2020, doctors performed 2,539 lung transplants in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. That is less than the 2,714 in the previous year.

The decline is likely due to hospitals restricting and delaying resource conservation procedures at the beginning of the pandemic, James Martinez, an association spokesman, said via email. The association is not pursuing lung transplants that are needed due to COVID-19, Martinez said.

As of Monday, 3,000 Ohioans were waiting for an organ donation, including 700 in central Ohio. Across the state, 64 people were waiting for a lung transplant and four for a heart and lung transplant, according to Lifeline of Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that coordinates human organ and tissue donation.

It’s hard to tell whether or not the need for lung donation is still increasing, said Andrew Mullins, chief operating officer of Lifeline of Ohio. Regardless, it’s important that people register to become organ donors, and with April being the “month of donating,” Mullins said, now is a good time to do so.

“There’s always a need, be it because of COVID or some other illness,” said Mullins.

Although it may take longer to determine if COVID-19 is causing a long-term jump in lung transplants, the burden of the virus on a person’s lungs is clear.

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Typically, it takes several years for smoking or a lung disease like pulmonary hypertension Borden once had to cause organs to deteriorate massively, Nunley said. But with COVID-19, that decline is happening much faster than expected, he said.

The damage was so great, and occurred so quickly in some patients, that they are often referred for a lung transplant while they are still battling the virus in an intensive care unit, Nunley said.

“It’s usually a very, very slow progression of scarring, sometimes over years, where this particular COVID scarring occurs very quickly,” Nunley said of other lung diseases compared to the virus. “Our time frame is really compressed.”

Doctors see significant inflammation, congestion and scarring in people who have had severe attacks of COVID-19, according to Nunley. This scarring prevents the lungs from taking in oxygen, which in turn means the rest of a person’s body, like von Borden’s, cannot get the air it needs to survive.

Borden is now beyond that point, however. With his newly donated lungs, he no longer suffers from the damage caused by COVID-19 or pulmonary hypertension.

After nearly four months of recovery, first in the hospital and then in a rehabilitation center, he’s finally back home looking forward to doing some of the things he used to do, like going to Kings Island with his two children or go for a swim when the weather warms up. Borden hopes his story will inspire others to register as an organ donor and possibly save someone like him.

“Organ donation is a great way to give this gift of life. … It is very much appreciated,” Borden said. “I’m obviously new to the entire donation process, but I owe my thanks to the donor who gave me a second chance.”

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