PHOENIX (June 30, 2023) – This Independence Day, Valley Army veteran Manny Pelayo will be singing along to the national anthem with his new lungs and thanking his lucky stars for the generosity of an organ donor and for the expertise of the physicians at Norton Thoracic Institute who saved his life after suffering from complications of COVID-19.
“I am so grateful,” says Pelayo, 33. “I just live every day to make my family proud, and to take care of this gift.”
In July 2020, two years after being discharged from seven years of service in the United States Army, Pelayo was hospitalized with COVID-19. The Metro Tech High School alumnus was in great health and physically active when he contracted the virus; though he was not yet eligible for vaccination.
“I had symptoms for around two weeks before I decided it was time to go to the ER,” says Pelayo. “My oxygen saturation level was at 80 percent.”
Pelayo spent six months in intensive care units at two other hospitals before being transferred to Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center where Norton Thoracic Institute physicians hoped his lungs would recover on continued ECMO therapy as they evaluated him for lung transplantation.
“It was an incredible rollercoaster,” he says. “I don’t remember much, but my parents were there by my side every step of the way. I woke up in the hospital in October, on ECMO with a trach, and no memory of the previous two months. I had no strength. They told me that I’d developed pneumonia, had blood clots and a brain bleed. By November, I learned I might need a double lung transplant, and one day after my 31st birthday, I was transferred to St. Joseph’s. Sometimes I still can’t believe it.”
It soon became clear to the team at Norton that Pelayo’s lungs could not recover. For several weeks, he worked with respiratory and physical therapists to strengthen his body in preparation for the complex procedure which took place in January 2021. In total, he was on an ECMO machine for 163 days and spent less than two weeks on the national organ transplant waitlist before the team found a match.
Lung transplantation is among the most complicated surgical procedures, and these patients require lifelong care. Additional challenges can arise for patients who have had COVID-19.
“Patients like Manny, who have respiratory failure due to COVID fibrosis, have often experienced longer hospitalizations and have had more medical interventions, in addition to very severe lung damage,” explains Ross Bremner, MD, executive director of St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute and one of Pelayo’s lung transplant surgeons.
Thankfully, Dr. Bremner says, the surgery went well. Nineteen days later, Pelayo was transferred to the hospital’s Neuro-Rehabilitation unit, which is part of Barrow Neurological Institute, to regain strength, coordination and muscle mass before finally being able to return home in February.
Now, two years after his lifesaving lung transplant, Pelayo looks forward to returning to school and moving forward with his life.
“I have a mechanic certificate from Gateway Community College, but with my new lungs, I can’t work around those chemicals anymore,” he says. “Once I’m strong enough and my doctors clear it, I want to go back to college. Hopefully this fall. I am very grateful to all my doctors, nurses, RTs, PTs, and all of the other staff at St. Joseph’s, too.”
“Manny’s outcome is truly remarkable,” says Dr. Bremner. “Here at Norton Thoracic Institute, it is our honor to provide care to an incredible number of patients from our community and beyond.”
St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute is home to one of the busiest lung transplant programs in the country which also was the nation’s third program to perform a lung transplant as a result of lung damage from COVID-19. With wait list times shorter than the national average, the program attracts patients from all over the country.
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