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SAN DIEGO — A man who was on advanced life support for more than 50 days after being infected with a serious case of COVID-19 that resulted in pneumonia and impaired his ability to breathe has become the region’s first coronavirus patient to receive a double lung transplant, UC San Diego Health announced Tuesday.

“What was eye-opening was that besides the COVID-19 virus, Mr. Gomez Gil was an otherwise healthy man,” said Eugene Golts, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at UC San Diego Health who performed the nearly eight-hour double lung transplant surgery. 

Federico Gomez Gil, 56, was first diagnosed with COVID-19 back in February before the vaccination was available to him.

“I felt extremely weak,” the Escondido resident said. “I had a fever and chills. I did not feel well at all.”

UC San Diego Health says as his condition progressively worsened, he was transferred to the Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center on their campus, where he needed lifesaving support and care. He was initially placed on a ventilator to assist with his breathing.

“He was on the brink of death when he arrived,” said Travis Pollema, DO, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UC San Diego Health who assisted Golts. “He would not have survived if he had not come to UC San Diego Health. We were able to provide him care with a combination of advanced technologies and approaches not available at any other hospital system in San Diego.”

However, doctors after determined that a higher level of care was needed, so Gomez Gil was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, which pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest. It is used when a ventilator alone is insufficient. The standard time for a patient to be on ECMO was nine to 12 days, but Gomez Gil was on ECMO for more than 50 days.

As days passed, the medical staff at UC San Diego Health realized Gomez Gil would need some form of ventilation for the rest of his life, so a solution to that was to perform a double lung transplant surgery.

“A requirement for transplant is that patients have a degree of mobility, even if on life support,” Pollema said. “We slowly wake patients up for periods of time and work with them to undergo a degree of physical therapy. It’s a marker for how well the patient will do following the surgery.”

For approximately nine weeks before his transplant surgery, doctors had Gomez Gil do physical therapy while on ECMO. 

“This process can be difficult,” Pollema said. “The patient’s lungs have not worked on their own for a long period of time. With the help of a phenomenal team, we were able to work through that transition period with Mr. Gomez Gil.”

On June 14, Gomez Gil received his new lungs. 

“The surgery went well and he has a good prognosis,” Golts said. “He has a long road to recovery, longer than most lung transplant patients because he needs to learn how to breathe again on his own after having mechanical lungs do it for him for so long.”

Guadalupe Gomez, Federico’s eldest daughter, said the experience they are going through “has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

“It has been amazing to see his progress,” she said. “One day he had all these tubes in, and then eventually, they were removed and he was communicating with us. Now, he is back home. It’s been surreal.” 

Gomez Gil says he is feeling so much better and is looking forward to spending time with his four grandchildren.

“I am so grateful to the donor and the entire medical team,” he said. “I am so blessed to be a success story. I want people to know this virus is real and serious. It’s so important for everyone to protect themselves, follow all the safety precautions and get vaccinated.”

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