'This is real': 1st COVID-19 patient to receive double lung transplant speaks out

Mayra Ramirez, 28, is speaking about the seriousness of COVID-19 after she needed a double-lung transplant.
/ Source: TODAY

The first COVID-19 patient in the country to receive a life-saving, double-lung transplant wants anyone who thinks the illness is a hoax or only affects much older people to just take a look at the scars on her chest.

Mayra Ramirez, 28, was discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago this week, nearly two months after she received a double-lung transplant in a 10-hour operation that her doctor said was necessary to save her life.

"I think that I am here with a purpose," Ramirez, a paralegal, told Al Roker on the 3rd hour of TODAY Friday. "And whether that purpose is just to share my story and be living proof that lung transplantation for terminally-ill COVID patients is an option is the purpose, or it may be that I'm here to share the message with other people that don't believe in COVID-19, that think that this is a hoax.

"It is real. I have the scars to prove that this is real. I'd never want anyone to undergo what I went through."

Ramirez does not remember the first six weeks she was on a ventilator after she called her family and told them she was going to the hospital. At a recent press conference, she explained that her condition worsened to the point that her family in North Carolina traveled to Chicago to say goodbye because her doctors thought she might not survive.

The rapid deterioration in her lungs had her doctors consider the double-lung transplant, which can be a tricky procedure because the patient has to have enough strength to endure the surgery.

There were 2,714 lung transplants in the United States in 2019, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, but conducting one on a COVID-19 patient was a new frontier.

"(Ramirez) was terminally, terminally ill and she had pretty severe and permanent lung damage, so without the transplant she would not be alive today," Ramirez's surgeon, Dr. Ankit Bharat, told Al on TODAY.

"It was the first one we had ever done, so there was a lot of unknowns about the transplant. Mayra was quite sick going into the transplant, so that made it quite complex, but we got through it. It was quite a challenging operation, perhaps one of the most difficult transplants I've done in my career."

Ramirez has been working to regain her strength, progressing from only being able to walk 90 feet without a break to being able to walk more than 1,000 feet at her discharge evaluation.

"I feel that it's been slow progress, just because I was so independent before, and I'm not able to do things as I used to," she said. "But everyone's amazed at the progress I've made so far."

Ramirez's scars from COVID-19 have been psychological as well as physical.

"I had nightmares the entire time," she said. "It kind of meshed in with reality. I could still feel things even though I was sedated. I still have flashbacks of things that happened in real life, but didn't actually happen, or may or may not have happened.

"For example, so I had nightmares, most of them were me drowning. And I relate that to me not being able to breathe and struggling to breathe. It's not just I was asleep and I woke up and I missed six weeks of my life."

The positive news is that the outlook for Ramirez is good given her age.

"So Mayra continues continues to get stronger every day, and she's young, youth is on our side," Bharat said. "So despite going through a pretty tough course in the hospital I'm quite confident that every day she's going to continue to get stronger."

"My hope for the future is to continue living my life as normal," Ramirez said. "Hopefully regaining all of the independence that I once had. And continue to help others through my line of work and in the community as well."