COVID-to-COVID lung transplant recipient describes historic experience

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Renato Aquino of Glendale Heights once belted out karaoke songs, but COVID-19 destroyed his lungs.

He became the first known COVID-to-COVID lung transplant recipient in the United States.

"I feel wonderful! " Aquino, 65, exclaimed at a news conference at Northwestern Medicine. "I can't say more, but here I am."

Aquino is the first known COVID-19 patient to receive both lungs from a donor who also had and recovered from COVID, according to Northwestern Medicine. His life has been in the hands of doctors and staff of the hospital's Lung Transplant Program.

"I survived because of this, behind me," Aquino said, referring to the doctors standing behind him at the news conference. "Thank you! I'm alive."

Before having COVID-19, Aquino loved to sing, joked with his family, and traveled.

But exactly one year ago - May 14, 2020 - the phlebotomist, who worked with COVID patients, found himself driving to the hospital after contracting the virus.

He spent time in various hospitals as the virus destroyed his lungs. He used an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a life support machine, to help the heart and lungs. When he was taken of the ECMO, he remained on a ventilator, according to Northwestern doctors.

His lungs barely functioned in life. In fact, his niece planned for his funeral.

"I actually went to the funeral home. I did all the arrangements, and then the next day he proved us wrong. He wanted to live...so who are we," said Tasha Sundstrom. "Every time we lost hope, he thrived. He really is a fighter."

For months, Aquino clung to life. Sundstrom knew he was suffering and happened to hear about the hospital's lung transplant program on the news. She contacted the hospital, advocating for her uncle to get a transplant.

"Renato was running out of options and running out of time, so we knew this was probably his only and last option," said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of Thoracic Surgery.

On, February 25, the Northwestern team made an historic move.

For the first time, they took lungs from a donor who recovered from a moderate case of COVID-19 and prepared to use them for Aquino's transplant. The donor died of a drug overdose, and after multiple tests and a biopsy, the doctors concluded the lungs were healthy.

It was a significant milestone.

"Currently many transplants centers are concerned about the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from a donor to recipient. Mr. Aquino's story clarifies the safety of the use of these donors," said Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine.

"Once we confirmed there was no lung damage, we felt confident of the quality of the donor lungs," he said.

Northwestern Medicine surgeons have completed 20 double-lung transplants on COVID-19 survivors, the most of any hospital in the world, according to hospital officials. And all 20, including Aquino's, are expected to make a full recovery, doctors said.

On May 5, Aquino was discharged from the hospital to recover at home.

"Look at him now, he's going to be doing karaoke soon!" Sundstrom joked.

Yes, that seems to be true, especially if you ask Aquino about his future.

He proclaimed with a laugh: "I'm going to be a singer!"

Aquino's niece started a GoFundMe page to help raise money to pay for his medical expenses and recovery.
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