PHOENIX (March 23, 2022) – When a Louisiana respiratory therapist contracted COVID-19, he never imagined it would keep him hospitalized for nearly a year or that the virus would nearly take his life. Now, one year later and with a new lease on life thanks to a successfuldouble lung transplant performed at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center’s Norton Thoracic Institute in Arizona, Byron Bolanos says he is grateful for the incredible medical care he has received.
“I was taking care of COVID-19 patients and I never thought I could get so sick. Once I tested positive for the virus, I hoped that it would be a mild case and that I could just rest and quarantine, and then get better,” recalls Bolanos, 51. “Unfortunately, that was not my experience with COVID-19.”
Bolanos first began feeling unwell in January last year, and was admitted on Feb. 1, 2021 to Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport—where he has been a respiratory therapist for more than 20 years. He had dangerously low blood oxygen levels ranging from the high 70s to low 80s, and was quickly diagnosed with COVID-pneumonia.
Within a few days, Bolanos was placed on a ventilator and later on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). While doctors hoped this complex therapy would help reduce the stress on Bolanos’ lungs and allow them to heal, he was unable to recover.
Doctors at Ochsner determined his best chance for survival was a double lung transplant and began contacting various regional transplant centers. After several unsuccessful inquiries, they reached out to the physicians at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute in Phoenix.
On June 22, a specialized team of Bolanos’ colleagues transferred him by air from Ochsner to Norton Thoracic Institute for a rapid lung transplant evaluation. By early July, Bolanos had undergone a lifesaving double lung transplant operation. Lung transplants are already among the most complicated surgical procedures and can be even more complex in patients who have had COVID-19 due to significant scarring of the lungs.
“Byron’s surgery was challenging due to the amount of scarring caused by the infection. In fact, his transplant took nearly seven hours to complete. I am thrilled about his remarkable outcome,” says Lara Schaheen, MD, one of Bolanos’ lung transplant surgeons at Norton. Home to one of the busiest lung transplant centers in the United States, St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute offers extensive experience in the treatment of lung failure and use of ECMO for lung recovery. Norton’s experts were also third in the country to perform a lung transplant as a result of lung damage from COVID-19.
The life-long Dallas Cowboys fan and father-of-two then spent an additional five months in the hospital regaining his strength. For two of those months, Bolanos worked hard in a rigorous inpatient therapy program in the hospital’s Barrow Neurorehabilitation Unit.
After more than 300 days of hospitalization in two different states, Bolanos was finally released from St. Joseph’s on Dec. 1. Lung transplant patients like Bolanos have suppressed immune systems and require lifelong follow-up care by experienced transplant pulmonologists. He is continuing to strengthen his body in a comprehensive outpatient therapy program and will remain in Phoenix for a few more months before being cleared to return home to Louisiana.
“I am just so grateful – for organ donation, my family, medicine, and to be alive. My colleagues at Ochsner have been incredible and super understanding. The team here at St. Joseph’s is amazing, too,” says Bolanos. “I can’t wait to go home, but I also hope I get strong enough soon to drive around and explore this beautiful state while I am here.”