WHEATON, Ill. — As the death toll from the coronavirus nears 200,000, recovery can be difficult for those who have survived the illness. But the first ever double-lung transplants for COVID-19 survivors is providing new hope for medical centers around the country and world.
Brian Kuhns is at the beginning of a long and grueling road to recovery.
Each day, he endures several difficult physical therapy sessions to rebuild his weakened body.
“This is real tough,” said Kuhns. “All this stuff runs through my mind that I have to do and now I can’t be like this.”
Kuhns, who initially didn’t take the coronavirus seriously, contracted the deadly virus in early March. The illness was like nothing he’d ever felt before.
“It was just like, I’m kind of walking dead. Fever, shaking so hard I can’t believe it.”
The virus that has now taken the lives of more than 190,000 Americans was destroying his lungs.
About 100 days on life-support and isolated from his family for more than three months, the 62-year-old grandfather was near death more than once.
“Yeah, I thought I was going to die for sure. I thought it was over,” said Kuhns.
After 39 years at his side, Kuhns’ wife Nancy couldn’t be in the hospital with him. On the phone, she pushed him to keep fighting.
“I keep give him a lot of confidence even when they told me he wasn’t gonna make it. I kept telling them that he was,” she said.
His doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital determined his only chance for survival was a double-lung transplant.
After 10 hours in surgery, Kuhns became only the second known coronavirus patient ever to have both lungs replaced.
“I fought back, gasping for air, 24 hours a day. As hard as you could breathe,” said Kuhns.
Dr. Mahesh Ramachandran, the chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine’s Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, says they’ve already discharged 125 COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began. Rehab, says Dr. Ramachandran, is essential to recovery.
“They get quite deconditioned. They get quite weak. They have neurologic problems, cardiac problems that need to be managed before they can safely go home,” said Dr. Ramachandran.
Two months after the revolutionary transplant, Kuhns is still getting used to his new lungs.
“I could feel it all the way down,” he said with a deep breath.
But he continues to fight and implores others to wear a mask and avoid others or face the consequences.
“This is a crazy disease. Some people get away with it and other people it nails,” said Kuhns. “I was one of the ones it nailed. So, you want to make a choice. You know which one you want to be.”
After nearly six months in the hospital, if all goes well, he could go home by the end of the month.