The need for new lungs is increasing 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 need one.
Simple things like going upstairs or doing household chores leave many people out of breath and for some survivors this will be a lifelong struggle.
Doctors knew that COVID-19 was a respiratory virus, but they didn’t know how long the battle would last.
“Once your body starts fighting COVID, it basically triggers this autoimmune response that can then set off this cytokine-like storm, and this whole pathway of inflammation that will then damage the lungs,” said Dr. Jordan Taillon, an intensive care pulmonologist who works at Lee Health hospitals during the pandemic.
“The more serious cases that we saw in the ICU, a lot of them will use oxygen, possibly for the rest of their lives,” Taillon said.
While lives were being saved in the ICU, some of Taillon’s patients developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which can kill lung tissue.
“It has this fibrotic pathway. Now, once your lungs have fibrosis and the scar tissue is there, it’s not going to heal from that,” Taillon said. “However, some people who have gone into ARDS, their body clears it, and it goes not along that fibrotic pathway. So often we wouldn’t fully know the long-term effects until we started seeing people in follow-up or starting to see them get better.”
The prognosis is poor for lung recovery when ARDS leads to fibrosis or scarring. The thickened tissue makes it difficult for the lungs to get enough oxygen and is permanent.
The only solution would be a lung transplant and those are rare.
“There is currently a short-term shortage of organs. And so yes, it definitely made an impact and it even changed the ability to get assessments,” Taillon said.
Because this is uncharted territory, pulmonologists keep a close eye on their patients for small signs of improvement.