Story at a glance

  • Lasting organ damage from the coronavirus has left numerous patients in need of organ transplants.
  • Fifty-nine transplants related to organ disease stemming from COVID-19 occurred in the United States through March 31.
  • “I expect this to be a completely new category of transplant patients,” said Tae Song, surgical director of the lung transplant program at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the world, some patients were on the brink of death from the resulting damage the virus had on their organs. Faced with the unknowns of the virus, the possibility of lasting damage and uncertainty if such patients could even survive a surgery, doctors approached organ transplants for COVID-19 patients hesitantly. Now that’s changing.

One such patient was Mark Buchanan, a 53-year-old power company lineman from Georgia, who contracted the coronavirus in the late summer of 2020. As his condition worsened he was put under sedation and intubated before being put on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which pumps and oxygenates the blood outside of the patient’s body, as his health deteriorated. 

"They said that it had ruined my lungs," Buchanan told Kaiser Health News. "The vent and the Covid ruined 'em completely." 

"They were telling me to end his life. I told them absolutely not," said his wife, Melissa Buchanan. "We all started Googling any place that would take someone who needed a lung transplant."


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Following numerous hurdles and phone calls, the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville agreed to take Buchanan. He underwent a successful double-lung transplant on Oct. 28.

In the six months following, attitudes toward COVID-related organ transplants have started to shift. 

According to data released by the United Network for Organ Sharing, 59 transplants due to COVID-19-related organ disease occurred in the United States through March 31. Of these transplants, 54 were lung transplants, four were heart transplants, and one was a combination lung-heart transplant.

"You're seeing it move around the country, and it's moving around pretty quick," David Weill, former director of the Stanford University Medical Center's lung and heart-lung transplant program, told Kaiser Health News. "It's like wildfire, where centers are saying, 'We did our first one, too.'"

The U.S. has recorded more 31 million cases of the coronavirus and close to 560,000 resulting deaths. Even as vaccination efforts continue, with 36.8 percent of the U.S. population having received at least one dose, the ensuing effects the virus has on patients and the organ damage that has already transpired mean the resulting damage will be seen in transplant trends moving forward.

“I think this is just the beginning,” said Tae Song, surgical director of the lung transplant program at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “I expect this to be a completely new category of transplant patients.”


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Published on Apr 14, 2021