'Not a hoax': 2 COVID-19 patients who received double-lung transplants describe harrowing experiences

Two people in Chicago became the first known patients in the U.S. to receive double-lung transplants due to severe lung damage after contracting COVID-19. 

One of the patients, 28-year-old Mayra Ramirez, said she was generally healthy but took “extra precautions” when the virus reached Illinois.

"People need to understand that COVID-19 is real. What happened to me can happen to you," Ramirez warned.

Mayra Ramirez, 28, (L) and Brian Kuhns, 62, (R) are pictured in provided images taken before their battles with COVID-19. (Photo credit: Provided / Northwestern Memorial Hospital)

In March, Ramirez said she began doing her paralegal job from home and stayed in quarantine, never even leaving her house. “But in April, I contacted my doctor, complaining of fatigue, chronic spasms, diarrhea, and loss of taste and smell,” she explained.

Ramirez said she only had a slight temperature of 100 degrees when she started noticing symptoms. By April 26, she felt “really bad” and went to the emergency department at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. 

Within 10 minutes of being admitted, Ramirez had to be placed on a ventilator.

“From there, everything was a blur,” she explained. "I don’t remember anything during my six weeks in the COVID ICU. When I finally woke up, it was the middle of June and I had no idea why I was in a hospital bed." 

During that time, doctors said Ramirez’s lungs had “irreversible damage” and it became clear that a double-lung transplant was the only thing that could save her life. 

On June 5, she unknowingly became the first patient in the United States to receive such a transplant after surviving COVID-19, according to the hospital.

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Prior to her infection, Ramirez had been diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica (NMO), an autoimmune disease that affects the spinal cord and nerves of the eyes. Otherwise, she was described as a healthy 28-year-old who also enjoys running, traveling and spending time with loved ones and her dogs.

“This virus overwhelmed Mayra’s lungs. For many days, she was the sickest person in our COVID ICU and possibly the entire hospital,” said Dr. Beth Malsin, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial. “Mayra had care providers numbering in the hundreds.”

Once Ramirez finally woke up in her hospital bed, the mental and physical challenges continued.

“Wiggling my toes was difficult and it felt like I had lost a lot of cognitive abilities,” Ramirez said. 

She was finally discharged from the hospital on July 8 and has continued occupational and physical therapy as part of her recovery.

The second person who underwent a double-lung transplant after surviving COVID-19 was Brian Kuhns, a 62-year-old husband and father from Lake Zurich, Illinois. 

Kuhns, who owns an automotive repair shop, first experienced COVID-19 symptoms in March, including headaches, stomach pains and a fluctuating temperature. 

On March 18, he went to a local emergency department when he developed a cough — and that would be the last time his wife, Nancy, and their two daughters would see him for nearly four months, the hospital said.

“No one can prepare you for the emotional toll COVID-19 takes on a family. Not being able to see, touch or hold your loved one as they’re fighting for their life in the ICU is extremely difficult,” Nancy Kuhns said. 

“Before COVID-19, Brian was a pretty healthy guy who loved music, cars and making people laugh. But he also thought COVID-19 was a hoax,” said Nancy Kuhns. “I assure you; Brian’s tune has now changed. COVID-19 is not a hoax. It almost killed my husband.”

Kuhns was transferred to Northwestern Memorial and received the transplant on July 5. The hospital said the procedure typically takes six to seven hours, but Kuhns’ surgery took about 10 hours “due to lung necrosis and severe inflammation in the chest cavities resulting from COVID-19.”

One day after surgery, Kuhns was taken off the ventilator and now continues to recover, the hospital said.

“Everything happened so quickly. One minute I’m running my business, and the next minute I’m spending 100 days on a life support machine,” Kuhns said. “If my story can teach you one thing, it’s that COVID-19 isn’t a joke. Please take this seriously.”

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.