Grandfather who survived COVID-19 recalls life-saving double lung transplant: "I took a chance"

Double lung transplant saves COVID-19 patient
Double lung transplant saves COVID-19 patient... 03:58

Auto mechanic Brian Kuhns had heard "very little about" the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, until one day in his Chicago shop, it hit him. Kuhns is one of just seven people in the U.S., among hundreds of thousands of survivors, to receive a double lung transplant after COVID-19 inflicted terminal, irreversible damage on his own respiratory system.

"In patients who have this COVID-19 lung injury and lung failure, they develop these punched-out holes throughout the lungs," Dr. Ankit Bharat, who performed the surgery, told CBS News' Dr. Jon LaPook in an exclusive interview. "Brian, he had big time, big cavities… the lung was stuck to the heart, to the diaphragm, to the chest wall."

Kuhns himself said he knew something was wrong one day at work when he returned from a lunch break, "and I got sick. Boom. I was done."  

Wife Nancy said she rushed Kuhns to the emergency room after she saw him "shake bad, like a jackhammer... Not a shiver, but I mean a violently, jerking shake." 

The 62-year-old said he remembers nothing "for a month and a half" after getting to the hospital, only that he was unable to breathe when he first woke up.

"I could feel my lung wasn't working," he said. "It's not moving when I breathe."

Kuhns' lungs were severely damaged and unable to supply enough oxygen to his body, even on a ventilator. Doctors put Khun on an ECMO machine, a life support system that uses a machine outside the body to support both the lungs and the heart, to keep oxygen flowing around the body. He was on the machine for 100 days.

Alone at the hospital, Kuhns prepared his wife, daughters and grandchildren for the worst.

"I said, don't expect me to come home. My lungs are done, I ain't coming home. This is it. Love you, goodbye," Kuhns recalled.

At that point, Dr. Bharat and his team at Northwestern Medicine told Kuhns that his choice was to get a transplant, or risk dying in his current state.

"I took a chance, and those guys were relentless," Kuhns said.

Bharat, who had performed the first successful double-lung transplant on a 28-year-old COVID-19 patient just a month earlier, warned Kuhns it would be risky.

"This was a treatment of last resort for him. We told them, like, I cannot say with certainty that he will get through this, but we have done it once before," Bharat said. 

The day after the 10-hour surgery, doctors took Kuhns off his ventilator to test out his new lungs. 

"I could breathe again," Kuhns marveled. He said the first thing he did after the surgery was take deliberately large breaths. He said he would never take breathing for granted again. 

Bharat said the rare treatment could be expanded to help a relatively small number of other severely ill COVID-19 patients. As for Kuhns, he's retired after years working as a self-employed mechanic. 

Now he might take his camper van and "go see the USA."