RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A trauma surgeon on the front lines of COVID-19 is finding lungs infected with the virus are more damaged than a smoker’s lung. She said it’s true even for asymptomatic cases.

Mayra Ramirez, a Sampson County native, said was infected with COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

Ramirez during her ICU hospitalization. Courtesy Northwestern Memorial Hospital

“There were many times when my family was told that I was going to die,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez lives in Chicago but was raised in Clinton. Her mother hopped on a plane from RDU to Chicago thinking she might not make it in time to goodbye.

Ramirez was the first person with COVID-19 to have a double-lung transplant in the country. Seven months later, she is still alive but coping with the long term impacts of her infection.

“My friends in North Carolina are all overhearing about COVID and listening about COVID on the news, but it’s still real. It’s still happening,” she said.

Before her diagnosis, her lungs were strong enough to running up to five miles a day. She was working from home and was never a smoker. The damage, however, became so severe she was put at the top of the list for a transplant.

She’s had complications like infections after the surgery.

“Day-to-day tasks to physical appearance, it’s affected me in almost every single way I can think of,” she said.

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Long-term complications are now emerging in many patients.

“This new COVID lung that we’re seeing is really turning out to be worse than a smoker’s lung,” said Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall at Texas Tech University. She works in a trauma unit and the ICU. She sees damaged lungs up close in the trauma unit where patients are admitted for non-coronavirus issues.

She said she and her colleagues began to notice the pattern in X-Rays and can now distinguish between infected and healthy lungs without ever meeting the patient.

“We’re still seeing that on people who are just walking around the community and thought they didn’t have any problems but they just had a positive test recently,” said Dr. Bankhead-Kendall.

Ramirez’s lung removed during her double-transplant. Courtesy Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Bankhead-Kendall worries about a future wave of patients seeking long term care. She said some patients have come in weeks after their initial infection as result of damage to the lungs.

“Having these blood clots, having these collapsed lungs, having these chest X-rays showing scarring that’s worsening,” said the doctor.

An ongoing recovery

Many of those patients will face hefty medicals bills, too.

Ramirez continues to work from home to keep her medical insurance. She needs it to help pay for visits with specialists, surgeries, and follow up visits.

“I’m still having to pay over $300 a month just for my prescriptions. That’s with insurance,” she said.

While she’s recovered from COVID-19 on paper, in reality, it’s not as clear cut.

“I’m not as enthusiastic, not as motived as before because of all the setbacks,” she said.

She’s now encouraging people to get tested for COVID-19. At the time of her infection, tests were not readily available to the public. Now, tests are free and they may help keep a case from reaching severe levels.

Bankhead-Kendall said she encouraged people to list their COVID-19 positive results in their medical history when visiting a primary care doctor to ensure they can provide proper care when more is learned about the long term impacts of COVID-19.

Emerging supportive studies

Northwestern Memorial Hospital has now conducted 10 COVID-19 lung transplants, the most of any hospital in the world. A study by Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine, showed COVID-19 is having irreversible lung damage on patients.

The study found the impacts are so severe in some cases, the only option is to undergo a lung transplant. Dr. Bharat believes the need for lung transplants will grow as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge.