Woman receives first COVID-related double lung transplant in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. — Carmen Lerma wasn’t the first person to get COVID in Wisconsin; far from it. She joined nearly 300,000 others diagnosed with the virus, but Carmen stands alone when it comes to her recovery.

For the first time in more than four months, Carmen can take a deep breath.

“You guys are all like the best. Thank you so much,” Carmen said to doctors and nurses at UW Health.

A breath that allowed her to say goodbye to some irreplaceable men and women

“Every single one of you here really made a difference. I wouldn’t be here today, so thank you,” Carmen said.

Everyone in the hallway applauded Carmen as a nurse wheeled her out. This was a good day. Carmen’s mask may cover up her smile, but can see the tears gratitude welling up in her eyes are just too much to keep in.
It’s already been a long journey, so a few more steps down the hallway are worth it to get to an important stretch of her road to recovery.

“There’s the door! There’s the door!” Carmen said, pointing to her family outside the hospital doors.

“It’s been a while,” she said, embracing her husband.

Thursday marked the first time Carmen saw her husband and family since being in the hospital. She got COVID-19 in July, and it destroyed her lungs. She eventually was put on oxygen, then a donor list.

“It’s hard to know how much time Carmen would’ve had,” Dr. Dan McCarthy, UW cardiothoracic surgeon, said.

Thanks to the sacrifice of a donor family, Carmen only waited a few days for new lungs. This is the first COVID-related double lung transplant in Wisconsin. Dr. McCarthy says the procedure is more complicated than regular transplants.

“Because COVID is so new, there’s really not a lot of evidence we can draw from to determine when is the right time to transplant these patients,” McCarthy said.

Carmen feels good again, and is off oxygen.

“Oh my God. It’s amazing. I never thought I would be able to do this again,” Carmen said.

Carmen’s reunion with her family proves her life wasn’t the only one on the line.

“I just want to hold her. It’s been a long while,” Hector Lerma, Carmen’s husband said, as his voice slightly trembled. “Being without her. I mean, we used to do everything together. I missed her.”

Thanks to the doctors and nurses at UW Health, Carmen Lerma has a new set of lungs. However, it’s her family who can finally breathe easy again.

“It was priceless. It was just amazing to see her for the first time,” Mario Ortiz, brother, said.

“Joy. Happiness. I missed her so much,” Hector said.

“A rough journey, but a great ending to it,” Carmen said.

Carmen has written a letter to the family of the person whose lungs she now has and expressed her gratitude for the gift of life they gave her. Dr. McCarthy says Carmen’s recovery will be long. UW doctors will of course have to monitor her and make sure her body doesn’t reject her new lungs.