The need for new lungs is surging as healthcare systems deal with a growing segment of patients whose lungs have been destroyed by COVID-19.
Transplants are not performed in Southwest Florida, but people here are in need of one.
Simple things like going upstairs or doing household chores are leaving many people breathless and for some survivors, this will be a lifelong struggle.
Doctors knew COVID-19 was a respiratory virus but they didn’t know how long-lasting the struggle would be.
“Once your body starts trying to fight COVID, it actually causes this autoimmune response that then can cause this cytokine kind of storm, and this whole inflammatory pathway that then will damage the lung,” said Dr. Jordan Taillon, a critical care pulmonologist working within Lee Health hospitals during the pandemic.
“The more severe cases that we saw in the ICU, a lot of them will be on oxygen, possibly the rest of their lives,” Taillon said.
While lives were saved in the ICU, some of Taillon’s patients developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which can be a killer of lung tissue.
“It does have this fibrotic pathway. Now, once your lungs fibrosis and the scar tissue is there, it’s not going to heal from that,” Taillon said. “Some people, though, that went into ARDS their body clears it, and it doesn’t go down that fibrotic pathway. So a lot of the times we wouldn’t fully know the long-term effects until we’d see people in follow-up or as we started seeing them get better.”
The prognosis is poor for lung recovery when ARDS leads to fibrosis or scarring. The thickened tissue makes it hard for the lungs to get enough oxygen and its permanent.
The only fix would be a lung transplant and those are rare.
“There’s a short shortage of organs currently. And so yeah, it absolutely has affected and it’s kind of changed the ability even to get evaluations,” Taillon said.
This being an unchartered territory, pulmonologists are closely monitoring their patients for any small signs of improvement.