One year ago, Renato Aquino drove himself to the hospital for shortness of breath due to COVID-19.
"I spent the last year in and out of hospitals, struggling to breathe - not knowing if I'd live or die," Aquino said.
Double lung transplant COVID-19 survivor reflects on rising hospitalizations and deaths, offers advice
Aquino was born and raised in the Philippines. He moved to Illinois 30 years ago for a career in medicine and was working as a phlebotomist caring for patients.
"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."
The double lung transplant was performed on February 25 using lungs from a donor who had previously had COVID and cleared the virus before dying from an unrelated cause. The donor's lungs did not have permanent damage from COVID.
"COVID-19 had caused permanent damage to Renato's lungs - he was running out of options and running out of time," said Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, who performed the procedure. "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. 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."
Before getting the transplant, Aquino was on a ventilator as his lungs struggled to recover. His family said they were told to say their final goodbyes to him multiple times.
"His doctors told us there was nothing more they could do for him," said Tasha Sundstrom. Aquino's niece. "Then, I saw a news story about lung transplants being performed on COVID-19 patients at Northwestern Medicine and mentioned it to my uncle's doctors. They called the lung transplant team and I cried tears of joy when Uncle Renato was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in early February."
Aquino, 65, is now continuing to recover at home in Glendale Heights, Illinois.
"I'm not done living yet and have a lot of good to share with the world," Aquino said. "I love taking care of people and making them happy. I'm ready to get back to being the 'fun uncle' who makes silly faces and jokes with my nieces and nephews. I've missed out on so much this past year - but thanks to my medical team and organ donor, I have a lot more to gain."
'I want to say thank you': Man devastated by COVID receives rare double lung transplant at Northwestern
Northwestern Medicine has performed 20 double lung transplants, the most of any hospital in the world. All 20 patients are expected to make a full recovery.