Not a lot has gone to plan, though, for Deborah and Rudy Lucero since New Year’s Day 2021 when the Albuquerque couple tested positive for COVID-19, Rudy’s oxygen saturation level plummeting so low that he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital five days later.
The pandemic had already ruined their plans for a big wedding June 6, 2020. They moved the date to April 3, 2021, but Rudy’s continued battle with COVID-19 dashed those plans, too.
They got married anyway, just not in the way they planned – he in a hospital room at Lovelace Medical Center, she in the parking lot below with about 100 of their friends and family and the Zoom app on her cellphone that sunny Super Bowl Sunday.
I’ve had the pleasure of telling the Luceros’ love story, from their unconventional wedding on Feb.7, 2021, to June 23 when Rudy was well enough to go home with his bride after nearly half a year of hospitalization and rehab and near-death scares.
But Rudy wasn’t completely well. COVID-19 had ravaged his lungs, scarring 70% to 80% of them with a debilitating and permanent condition known as pulmonary fibrosis, a “long-hauler” aftereffect.
Rudy, who had to sell his plumbing business because of his illness, was told he would require constant use of an oxygen tank and concentrator the rest of his life. But the Luceros were optimistic that with Rudy’s unyielding determination and Deborah’s unflagging support, his condition would improve enough to avoid the need for a lung transplant.
Once again, things did not go as planned.
“He was working so hard to get better,” Deborah said. “We had his oxygen levels better when things went bad.”
In October, Rudy was hospitalized with pulmonary hypertension, a condition in which the heart works at a dangerously high rate to pump blood through the lungs.
“That’s when we had to start talking about a double lung transplant,” Deborah said.
Rudy, 55, had been reluctant to consider a transplant because he was told that long-term survival rates for lung-transplant recipients tend to be lower than those undergoing other organ transplants, maybe less for someone whose lung damage was COVID-caused.
But in reality, no one yet knows how well COVID-19 long haulers fare after a transplant because the virus has only been doing its damage since 2020 and there haven’t been many cases like Rudy’s.
“We asked doctors why we weren’t hearing about other patients like Rudy,” Deborah said. “And they told us that normally they don’t make it this far.”
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that of the more than 3,000 lung transplants performed between August 2020 and September 2021, just 7% were needed because of lung damage caused by COVID-19.
The good news is the study found that 95% of the COVID long hauler recipients were still alive after three months – the same survival rate as lung transplant patients overall. And the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora, where Rudy is being treated, conducted its first COVID-related lung transplant in March 2021, and that recipient is still alive.
Still, the procedure is risky, complicated and rare, a last resort when all else fails. After the October setback, the Luceros decided the last resort was upon them.
“The way he’s thinking is that the way he is living now is not a way to live,” Deborah said from the Aurora hotel room as Rudy quietly, haltingly affirms what she is saying. “It sounds weird to say, but he can’t even enjoy just walking to the bathroom. He’s exhausted by the time he gets there.”
Deborah – who quit her job as a cosmetologist to be Rudy’s constant partner, nurse, physical therapist, respiration therapist, coach and occasional nag – has been working with him to help him gain more strength, reminding him that she is in this battle, too.
In early March, the Luceros traveled to the Anschutz Medical Center so that Rudy could undergo extensive testing to determine whether he is a good candidate for a double lung transplant.
It’s a small window of opportunity. A patient has to be sick enough to need a transplant yet not too sick to survive the transplant.
On March 23, the Luceros returned to Anschutz to continue physical therapy at the hospital and on their own in the hotel hallway.
“He has to be able to walk 800 feet in six minutes, so we have been working on that, up and down the hallway,” Deborah said. “I push him, yes, and we’ve had our arguments. His will is strong and I expect a lot of him. He calls me The Warden, but I tell him he can call me whatever he wants as long as he does what I tell him.”
She believes Rudy’s ready.
He will test again next Wednesday. If he passes, he will be placed on the lung transplant list. With luck, a donor will be found and the procedure can be done within weeks.
“Our fingers are crossed,” she said. “Until then, it’s hurry up and wait.”
The Luceros say they are blessed with the support of many friends and family, especially Rudy’s brothers.
They are especially blessed because 18 years ago they found each other and fell in love. Though life together has not gone as they had planned, what’s important is there is still life, still them, together.
“Doctors tell us Rudy is nothing short of a miracle,” Deborah said.
Here’s hoping more miracles are in the plans ahead.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.