After spending months on a ventilator, 65-year-old Renato Aquino is on his way to recovery after becoming the first known patient with COVID-19 to receive a “COVID-to-COVID double lung transplant” in the United States.
Aquino, who immigrated to Illinois from the Philippines to pursue a career in medicine 30 years ago, worked on the front lines of the pandemic as a blood technician. On May 14, 2020, he drove himself to the hospital because he was suffering shortness of breath from the coronavirus.
In a press release from Northwestern Medicine, Aquino explained, “I was a healthy guy with no underlying health conditions, but my symptoms started with a fever and quickly got worse. On May 14, 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 was placed on a ventilator before he was transferred to a second hospital and placed on life support. He was put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which supports the lungs and heart. He remained on the ECMO for two months and then was placed back on a ventilator because his lungs were not recovering well. Doctors instructed his niece, Tasha Sundstrom, to begin planning his funeral based on his condition.
“I did all of the arrangements and the next day he proved us wrong, he wanted to live,” his niece explained at a Northwestern Medicine press conference.
Sundstrom later learned from a news story that Northwestern Medicine were performing lung transplants on COVID-10 patients and mentioned it to her uncle's doctors, who then got Aquino transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in February.
Since COVID-19 had caused permanent damage to his lungs, Aquino was placed on a lung donor list, according to his physician, Dr. Ankit Bharat, a thoracic surgery chief at Northwestern Medicine. A week later, Bharat got the good news that a donor was found.
The donated lungs came from a donor who had a mild-to-moderate case of COVID-19 and later died from unrelated medical causes. The donor's history was reviewed to ensure that their COVID-19 infection was not a severe case, according to Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, another thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine.
- Watch TODAY All Day! Get the best news, information and inspiration from TODAY, all day long.
- Get TODAY's One Small Thing newsletter in your inbox each day.
“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,” Bharat said, according to the press release. “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.”
At the press conference, Bharat explained, “With the right procedures in place, it is absolutely safe to use those organs (from a donor who has had COVID-19).”
Over the last year, doctors have made strides in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Last summer, a 28-year-old woman became the first COVID-19 patient in the country to receive a life-saving double lung transplant. This year, a 24-year-old father of three has been recovering from COVID-19 after receiving a single kidney and double lung transplants.
Aquino addressed his lifesaving surgery during the press conference, saying, “Thank you is not enough."
Now that Aquino has been released from the hospital, he says he feels “wonderful” and is ready for his second act. After all, there’s one thing in the world that he’s most looking forward to: karaoke!