Coronavirus-stricken woman gets lung transplants after mother travels to Chicago to say ‘goodbye’

Northwestern Memorial Hospital patients Mayra Ramirez and Brian Kuhns were the first coronavirus-afflicted people in the country to receive double-lung transplants.

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Mayra Ramirez, 28, the first COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, poses for a portrait at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Mayra Ramirez, 28, the first COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, poses for a portrait at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayra Ramirez described her worst moment — when she was close to death and how her mother had been told to catch the first flight to Chicago to come say goodbye.

As Ramirez spoke Thursday, her mother sat a few feet away, silent, most of her face and her outward emotions hidden behind a surgical mask.

“What hurts the most is knowing everything my family went through during the time I was intubated,” said Ramirez softly, as she appeared with the team of Northwestern Memorial Hospital doctors who ensured her mother never had to utter that awful word, “Goodbye.”

Ramirez, 28, of Chicago, and Brian Kuhns, a 62-year-old mechanic from Lake Zurich were both Northwestern patients who made history: They were the first in the nation to receive double-lung transplants after the coronavirus destroyed those organs.

Brian Kuhns, 62, the second COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, poses for a portrait at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Brian Kuhns, 62, the second COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, poses for a portrait at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ramirez, a paralegal who moved to the city from North Carolina six years ago, told reporters that she’d been careful when the pandemic swept through. She stayed home mostly but still got sick. In April, she called her doctor after she lost her sense of taste and smell — and felt excessively tired. When she had fainting spells later that same month, she came to Northwestern’s emergency room.

“I was asked who would be making my medical decisions for me,” Ramirez explained. Her mother, she said. A few minutes later, she was being hooked up to a ventilator. The next few weeks were a blur with Ramirez often unable to distinguish reality from her frequent nightmares.

And then, when it seemed they’d run out of options, doctors called Ramirez’s mother in North Carolina and told her it was time to make the trip out. But instead of bidding farewell, Nohemi Romero was asked to sign off on what would be a life-saving operation for her daughter. Romero didn’t hesitate.

Ramirez, who had her operation June 5, is making good progress, having been discharged from the hospital July 8.

Mayra Ramirez, 28, the first COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, talks to her doctors after a press conference at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Mayra Ramirez, 28, the first COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, talks to her doctors after a press conference at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“It wasn’t until weeks later that I was able to think to myself that there is a family out there that is grieving their loved one. I have that person’s lungs and how lucky I was to have received it,” Ramirez said.

Before Kuhns got sick in March, he didn’t see the point of face masks or buying into the hype of the “hoax” virus.

He doesn’t feel that way now — not after the disease shredded his lungs and put him on a life-support machine for three months.

“I thought I was dead. I was done,” said Kuhns, his grateful wife at his side.

Brian Kuhns, 62, the second COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, speaks to his doctors after a press conference at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Brian Kuhns, 62, the second COVID-19 patient to receive a double-lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine, speaks to his doctors after a press conference at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Kuhns has even regained his sense of humor.

“I wouldn’t recommend this,” he said, his voice hoarse from having a plastic tube in his windpipe for so long.

Kuhns was asked how his life has changed since his July 5th transplant. He no longer takes anything for granted, he said.

“It’s all about your loved ones. They keep you going. Otherwise, what else is there?” he said.

Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine, speaks during a press conference at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital about two successful double-lung transplants they performed on COVID-19 patients Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine, speaks during a press conference at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital about two successful double-lung transplants they performed on COVID-19 patients Thursday morning July 30, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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