A 'New Category' of Transplant Patients Is Emerging

COVID is leaving formerly healthy people with destroyed lungs
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 2, 2021 9:01 AM CDT
A 'New Category' of Transplant Patients Is Emerging
Doctors in Kyoto University Hospital announced April 8 they had successfully performed the world’s first transplant of lung tissue from living donors to a patient with severe lung damage from COVID-19.   (Kyoto University Hospital via AP)

Another gloomy sidebar to the COVID story: the fact that the illness is giving rise to what one doctor calls "a completely new category of transplant patients." NBC News charts the evolution of thought about giving new lungs or hearts to patients who have seen those organs essentially ruined by the disease: Initially, with little known about the disease and whether a COVID patient could even survive a transplant, few of them were done (a point NBC illustrates via the case of a 53-year-old who needed new lungs in October and had to call a number of hospitals to find one that was willing to take a chance on him). But late that month, new codes that flag a transplant due to a COVID diagnosis were created, and as of March 31, 58 such transplants have been logged—54 lungs and 4 heart.

Expect that number to climb. Dr. David Weill, who used to head up Stanford University Medical Center's lung and heart-lung transplant program and now consults, writes this for STAT News: "COVID-19-related lung disease is an unwelcome byproduct of the pandemic, but one I believe will be a part of transplant practices for years to come." And the patients look different, with one surgeon saying it's "a very different profile. ... These patients had normal lung function. They're young, and now they find themselves on mechanical ventilation or ECMO, fighting for their lives." If you're wondering how this has impacted America's notoriously long transplant waiting list, the answer seems to be not much. That's largely because most people on the 107,000-person list need a kidney, which isn't an organ that's as affected by COVID. Only about 1,000 people need lungs. (More organ transplants stories.)

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