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His family told him goodbye last fall; now COVID-19 patient gets second chance at life: a double lung transplant

The Glendale Heights man is among the first-known “COVID to COVID” double-lung transplants in the nation.

Renato Aquino, 65, of Glendale Heights, talked to reporters Friday, after having one of the first-known “COVID to COVID” double-lung transplants in the nation. | Pat Nabong, Sun-Times.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Last fall, Renato Aquino became so sick with COVID-19 that doctors told his niece he was probably brain dead and it might be time for the family to say goodbye.

So Tasha Sundstrom, Aquino’s niece, and other family members wept as they gathered around a computer tablet and told the man in the hospital bed how sorry they were that it was ending this way. Then Sundstrom, who lives in Hanover Park, picked out a poem, some white roses and a silver urn for her uncle’s ashes.

On Friday, Sundrstrom, 35, was with her uncle again — this time at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with the doctors who brought him back from the brink of death.

“I’m alive!” Aquino, 65, said, throwing his hands in the air, his voice still hoarse from having had a plastic tube poked down his windpipe for so long.

Renato Aquino, 65, one of the first COVID-19 survivors to receive a double-lung transplant from a person who also had COVID-19, waves to the media during a press conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Feinberg Pavilion on, Friday morning, May 14, 2021.
Renato Aquino, 65, waves to reporters as he arrives for his news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Feinberg Pavilion on Friday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Aquino, who lives in Glendale Heights, is alive thanks to a double-lung transplant — from a donor who also had COVID-19. Northwestern doctors said it’s believed to be one of the first known “COVID to COVID” double-lung transplants in the United States.

“This is important because there is already a large supply and demand gap for organ donors, as well as increased demand for donor lungs now with the pandemic,” said Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, one of Aquino’s surgeons. “We need to get creative and maximize our donor pool.”

Doctors would say little about the donor, other than that the person’s death was not related to the coronavirus.

“Once we confirmed there was no lung damage, we felt confident in the quality of the donor lungs,” Garza-Castillon said.

Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, a general thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, at a news conference on Friday, May 14, 2021 to discuss a double-lung transplant.
Dr. Rafael Garza-Castillon, a general thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, discusses Renato Aquino’s double-lung transplant.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Aquino appeared to have run out of options last fall, after initially being diagnosed with COVID-19 in May 2020. Aquino isn’t sure how he came down with the virus, but told reporters Friday he is a phlebotomist and had collected blood samples from coronavirus patients prior to his diagnosis.

On May 14 2020, Aquino drove himself to a local emergency room, telling doctors he was suffering from shortness of breath. His condition rapidly deteriorated and he was eventually placed on a ventilator.

But somehow he didn’t die on that fall day when his family said goodbye. And as he clung to life, Sundstrom read a news story about a coronavirus patient at Northwestern having a successful double-lung transplant. She mentioned it to one of her uncle’s doctors and the patient was later transferred to Northwestern. Aquino’s surgery was Feb. 25.

Doctors now say they expect him to make a full recovery.

“I feel wonderful,” he said, repeatedly thanking his doctors for saving his life.

Sundstrom was also extremely grateful.

“He’s like a second father to me. ... He’s always there whenever I need him — for advice, anything,” she said. “He’s very selfless.”

He also likes to sing karaoke, his niece said. But given the fact that he hadn’t uttered a word for months, it might be a little while before he’s crooning along to his favorite Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer tune: “Moon River.”