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South Korean COVID-19 patient recovers after record 112 days on a specialised life-support system

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The 50-year-old had to undergo double lung transplant

After a record 112 days on a specialised life-support system, a South Korean COVID-19 patient is recovering from double lung transplant surgery, doctors say, in only the ninth such procedure worldwide since the coronavirus outbreak began.

The 50-year-old woman was diagnosed with the disease and hospitalised in late February and then spent 16 weeks on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support, which involves circulating a patient’s blood through a machine that adds oxygen to red blood cells.

That’s the longest that any COVID-19 patient in the world has spent on ECMO support, her doctors said.

Various drugs such as the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine, the HIV treatment Kaletra and steroids failed to stop her pulmonary fibrosis – scarring in the lungs – from worsening, said Dr Park Sung-hoon, Professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine, Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital.

That left few options other than a lung transplant.

“The probability of success in lung transplants on ECMO patients is 50 per cent, and fortunately, our patient was well prepared before the surgery when we found the donor,” said Dr Kim Hyoung-soo, Director of the Hospital’s ECMO programme, who was in charge of the surgery.

The patient declined to be identified or interviewed.

The doctors who conducted the eight-hour surgery described her destroyed lungs as hard as rock.

She had an acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) when she came to the hospital, Park said, and could not live without the ECMO machine’s help.

ECMO is typically used on patients who need more help than ventilators can provide, and who are considered to have a 90 per cent chance of dying. Half of the patients recover in two to three weeks on ECMO, and a lung transplant is considered for those who don’t, Kim said.

The surgery was ninth after six similar surgeries in China, and one each in the United States and Australia, the hospital said.

Lung transplants are less common than other transplants in South Korea, with 92 of them in 2018, compared with 2,108 kidney and 176 heart transplants, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lee Sun-hee, a head nurse of the ECMO programme who has cared for the patient since February, said the woman seemed to have a stronger-than-usual will to live, in part driven by being a mother of two.

“She told us, ‘I’m grateful for the sunshine, for the moonlight. I’m so grateful that I am breathing’,” Lee said.

Lee said the woman already knows the first thing she wants to do when released from the hospital:

Doctors said she would be discharged when her chest muscles are strong enough to support her breathing.

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