(PHOENIX – Nov. 12, 2020) — A New Mexico father-of-two has undergone a lifesaving double lung transplant at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix as a result of contracting COVID-19. After spending 147 days in the hospital, which included more than 100 days on a ventilator, and 93 days on ECMO, Arthur Sanchez has been released from the hospital and reunited with his family.
St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute, home to one of the nation’s busiest and top-ranked lung transplant programs, is the first in the Western United States and third in the country to perform a lifesaving lung transplant for a post-COVID-19 patient. Only a small handful of the country’s 74 lung transplant centers are providing this service as a last resort for patients who have developed irreversible lung damage from COVID-19. Already among the most complicated surgical procedures, lung transplants can be even more complex in patients who have had COVID-19 due to significant scarring of the lungs. Lung transplant patients require lifelong follow-up care by experienced transplant pulmonologists.
“Transplants for COVID-19-related lung injuries should only be performed in centers, such as Norton, that are experienced in high-risk transplantation, have an active ECMO program to support such patients as needed, and have the ability to transplant patients quickly,” says Rajat Walia, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of the lung transplant program at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute.
With community spread of COVID-19 in his hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, it is unclear exactly when and where Sanchez contracted the novel coronavirus. But on April 12, Easter Sunday, he was admitted to the hospital after experiencing a fever, chills and shortness of breath. Sanchez had no underlying medical conditions other than sleep apnea and elevated blood pressure.
In the last several months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Sanchez has had multiple family members contract the virus – his mother, wife, sister and brother-in-law. Although most of his family recovered, his brother-in-law unfortunately passed away as a result of the virus. Studies have suggested that Hispanic communities have been affected at a higher rate in the southwestern U.S.
“I was doing pretty well at first, and I actually got to go home after just a few days of treatment,” says Sanchez, 52. “I was prepared to quarantine from my wife, but the first day home my nurse sent me back to the hospital and I was put on a ventilator. At one point, my sister was also being treated for COVID-19 in the hospital room next to mine.”
Sanchez’s lungs needed even more help to fight the disease, so he was airlifted to The University of New Mexico (UNM) Hospital in Albuquerque for treatment on an ECMO machine. ECMO – short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – is considered a last resort therapy for some COVID-19 patients. It is a machine that essentially takes over for failing lungs. During his more than three-month stay at UNM Hospital, Sanchez spent a total of 93 days on the lung bypass machine due to COVID-19.
Under the supervision of Jon Marinaro, MD, co-chief of the UNM Center for Adult Critical Care and director of the hospital’s ECMO program, doctors were eventually able to wean Sanchez from ECMO support. However, his lungs were so severely scarred from the infection that he still required a ventilator. His only chance of survival was a double lung transplant.
Dr. Marinaro, who has known Dr. Walia for two years, sought out St. Joseph’s and its transplant team to care for Sanchez. “They are probably our closest lung transplant center, and Dr. Walia and I had discussed uniting our ECMO program with their transplant program for situations like Arthur’s,” he said.
“Arthur persevered through multiple near-death experiences, including infections, bleeding complications and many other setbacks,” Dr. Marinaro explains. “His survival is a testament to his inner strength, his family support system and the outstanding teams at Mountain View Hospital in Las Cruces, UNM Hospital in Albuquerque, the Lifeguard transport team and St. Joseph’s in Arizona.”
Within just two weeks of Sanchez’s arrival to St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute, the lung transplant team found a donor match. In early August, he received the ultimate gift of life – two new, healthy lungs from a generous organ donor.
“Arthur’s surgery was incredibly complex,” says Samad Hashimi, MD, one of Sanchez’s lung transplant surgeons at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute and director of the ECMO program. “Patients who have had COVID-19 are unlike our other lung transplant patients in that they’ve experienced longer hospitalizations pre-transplant, many more medical interventions, and very severe lung damage.”
After 44 days at St. Joseph’s, and a total of 147 days hospitalized, Sanchez was able to reunite with Michaela, his wife of 30 years, and their two grown daughters.
“In the last several months, I could have lost my husband three times,” says Michaela Sanchez, who also tested positive for the disease but was asymptomatic. “He’s the love of my life, my high school sweetheart. We spent our 30th wedding anniversary in the hospital at UNM. It has been an absolute rollercoaster, and I’m so elated now that we can be together again.”
Sanchez, who has been a dedicated employee at El Paso Electric in Las Cruces for nearly three decades, urges the community to continue taking this virus seriously. “Before my family started to get sick, I thought this was just another flu-like virus that was being sensationalized. Lo and behold, it hit us in a bad way.”
Not taking a single day for granted anymore, Sanchez says he is grateful beyond words to his organ donor’s family for the new lease on life and to the health care heroes whose dedication helped him get to where he is today.