The Leuven university hospital has announced it has carried out the first two transplant operations in the Benelux on patients who suffered lung damage as a consequence of Covid-19.
The two operations were carried out successfully on patients whose lives were in danger, but the hospital stressed that such post-Covid cases will remain an exception.
“Our patients on the regular waiting list for lung transplants almost always take precedence,” a hospital spokesperson said.
Covid-19 is a disease that attacks first the lungs, leading in serious cases to respiratory distress and a need for artificial respiration. If the patient survives, they can also suffer damage to other tissues of the body, to an extent that remains largely unknown. Survivors are, however, often left with longer-lasting breathing troubles.
The first of the two transplants at UZ Leuven took place on 1 January on a patient whose lungs were irretrievably damaged by the virus. The second took place later.
The intervention is, however, unlikely to become commonplace. Suitable donor lungs are always in short supply, and in any case, transplant units are not like A&E departments, and work with patients who have been rigorously screened to determine whether a transplant, should a donor even become available, would be advised.
However well the post-Covid transplant patients may now be faring, the brutal truth of any transplant is that one recipient is taking a donor organ that another patient may have been waiting on for months or even years.
Dr. Geert Verleden, pulmonologist at the UZ Leuven, explained the criteria to the VRT.
A transplant, he said, “is only possible for people who are in danger of death after they have been on a ventilator for at least four weeks in intensive care. In addition, there is an age criterion: the younger the patient is, the more chance they have of getting new lungs.”
The chances are increased, he said, if the patient was in good health prior to the Covid infection, and preferably not a smoker and not overweight.
“With those selection criteria there appears to be a very good chance of surviving for a long time,” he said, “Whereas they are now in a situation where they will probably die within a few weeks.”
The age distinction, which pre-dates Covid-19, comes as a blow to the Deconinck family from Anzegem in West Flanders, Het Laatste Nieuws reports. Father Joris is 59, and was in rude good health until December, when he was struck down by the virus.
Since then he has been maintained in a coma, and although the virus has been defeated, the condition of his lungs post-Covid means he is unlikely to be able to be taken off a ventilator due to the state of his lungs.
“But corona patients over 50 are no longer eligible for a transplant,” said his daughter Florence.
UPDATE 10.3: Joris Deconinck, the man mentioned in the article whose family was hoping for a lung transplant, has died without regaining consciousness.