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NM COVID patient on the mend after double-lung transplant

Michaela and Arthur Sanchez

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For much of the coronavirus pandemic, a machine has helped New Mexico COVID-19 patient Arthur Sanchez with every breath he has taken.

But the 52-year-old father of two, who has been mostly hospitalized since April, is expected to return to his Las Cruces home this weekend after a double-lung transplant.

Sanchez was the third person with coronavirus to undergo the procedure after the disease mangled his lungs. He got the transplant at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix on Aug. 16.

Sanchez, who works for El Paso Electric, went from someone who had little concern about the coronavirus to fighting for his life. He and his medical team described the ordeal during a news conference from Arizona on Monday.

In early April, just weeks after New Mexico started seeing its first confirmed cases, the virus didn’t seem like that big of a deal to Sanchez.

“I wasn’t one of those people that was kind of shying (away from) the COVID,” he said. “It’s, you know, nothing big. Like any other virus, it’s going to go away.”

Doctors at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix perform Arthur Sanchez’s double lung transplant on Aug. 16. He was the third person with coronavirus to undergo the procedure.

But then his family started getting sick. Sanchez’s sister contracted the disease and was hospitalized, along with her husband, Tony Morgan, 50, who ultimately died.

Sanchez’s 79-year-old mother also tested positive, and Sanchez cared for her. While his mother had few, if any, symptoms, Sanchez had a fever and chills the night he returned home.

He was admitted to MountainView Regional Medical Hospital in Las Cruces on April 12. After several days, he said he felt OK and was discharged. But when a nurse called to check on him he reported symptoms, and she drove over to check on him, he said.

“Unbelievable that she was willing to do that,” Sanchez said. “And when she saw the state that I was in, she said, ‘We need to go back to the hospital.’ So she drove me herself.”

Sanchez’s wife, Michaela Sanchez, also tested positive but was asymptomatic.

Sanchez wasn’t so lucky.

“I would probably compare it to being underwater too long and not being able to come up for air,” he said.

When his condition worsened, Sanchez was flown to the University of New Mexico Hospital.

There, he was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO. The machine essentially pumped blood out of his body, through an artificial lung and back into it.

Dr. Jon Marinaro, co-chief of the UNM Center for Adult Critical Care and director of the hospital’s ECMO program, said a patient typically spends seven to 20 days on ECMO. Sanchez underwent 93 days, a record “ECMO run” for UNMH, he said.

“With COVID, nationally, almost everybody is seeing runs of 30 to 50 days. So to have a 93-day run is extremely long,” Marinaro said.

Arthur Sanchez speaks with Dr. Ashwini Arjuna, right, at a follow-up appointment after a double lung transplant. (Courtesy Dignity Health)

In addition to ECMO, Sanchez also spent more than 100 days on a ventilator, which pumps air into the lungs, during his 147 days in hospitals, according to officials at the hospitals where he was treated.

Marinaro said COVID patients staying on a ventilator for long stretches across the nation is one of the reasons the disease is taxing hospital resources.

“With COVID pneumonia, if you’re on the ventilator, you’re not on it for just a couple of days, like even some of the bacterial pneumonias. … You’re on the ventilator for much greater times,” Marinaro said.

COVID scarred his lungs beyond repair, and Sanchez, otherwise a relatively healthy man, was identified as a candidate for a double-lung transplant. The closest hospital that can perform such a procedure is in Phoenix. The hospital has performed about 900 lung transplants since 2007, making it a leader in the nation.

“Arthur’s surgery was incredibly complex,” said Dr. Samad Hashimi, one of Sanchez’s lung transplant surgeons at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute. “Patients who have had COVID-19 are unlike our other lung transplant patients in that they’ve experienced longer hospitalizations pre-transplant, many more medical interventions, and very severe lung damage.”

Throughout the months that he was hospitalized, doctors who treated Sanchez said he was close to dying several times.

And as a recipient of a double-lung transplant, Sanchez will be on medication for the rest of his life and have to meet with pulmonologists regularly, he said.

“I feel great and my attitude towards the virus has changed,” he said. “You really need to take it seriously, take care of you and your family.”

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