Wait is long for COVID patients in need of lung transplant

TAMPA, Fla. — When COVID first hit, no one really knew what to expect. That includes the nurse who treated the first COVID patient at Tampa General Hospital.

After working most of the pandemic in the ICU, that nurse is now working to save patients whose lungs are so damaged from COVID, they need transplants.

“I actually took the first COVID patient in ICU,” said Kelsey Easterlin.

Little did Easterlin know how much change the next year-and-a-half would bring.

“We were fighting an uphill battle at that time. A lot of patients were dying, no matter what we did,” she said.

Yet, while death for some was inevitable, life for others has become unbearable.

“We are seeing a lot of patients, you know, need a transplant,” she said.

On Monday, Easterlin helped patients get new lungs. In a growing number of cases, they are lungs destroyed by COVID.

“We can’t reverse fibrosis, so there’s nothing you can do besides transplant them. Transplant or they die,” she said. “The list we have right now – I think we have about 12 people on it…sometimes people wait for days, sometimes they will wait for weeks, sometimes people wait for months.”

Often, the patients are young and otherwise relatively healthy.

“We have a gentleman waiting right now in the hospital for lungs that are post-COVID. Twenty-nine [years old]. No, no other health issues.”

Dr. Gaetane Michaud of USF says COVID scarring is damage like she’s never seen.

“They’re coming back with scars on their lungs and we’re doing scans. We’re seeing all these white lines on their lungs – these areas of scar,” she said. “The lungs don’t have any way to recover.”

A permanent price to pay, especially for the youngest victims.

“We’re seeing a lot more children,” she said. “And some of them are going to end up with lifelong scars in their lungs.”

Scars that can, in many cases, be prevented.

“Life is very short and we’re never guaranteed tomorrow, so live as carefully as possible, wash your hands, wear a mask, you know, protect your family as best that you can,” said Easterlin.

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