250 days and counting: Waiting on new lungs after Covid

While most Americans are shedding their masks and returning to their pre-pandemic lives, Marie Jackson remains in a Chicago hospital room.

She has been there for more than 250 days.

There is no indication yet when Jackson, 53, will be able to go home. She’s waiting on a new pair of lungs; hers were irreversibly scarred when she was sickened by Covid-19 last July.

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While new Covid hospitalizations are down to their lowest point in the pandemic, Jackson is one of the estimated hundreds of patients who, despite getting sick months ago, remain hospitalized. Their lungs simply cannot heal without mechanical ventilation or other intensive care, such as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

ECMO, as it’s called, does the work of the heart and lungs for patients too sick to pump blood and breathe on their own.

Such technology can sustain patients for months, and indeed, many patients have been on ECMO since last summer’s delta wave — at least 10 months in some cases.

But it’s not a permanent solution. ECMO can cause complications, such as infection and blood clots. ICU clinicians work to wean their patients off of ECMO, but sometimes the patient’s body is unable to sustain itself without it. When a patient cannot be weaned from ECMO, new lungs from a donor are necessary.

“You can’t go home on ECMO. You can’t even leave the ICU,” said Dr. Hugh Cassiere, medical director for the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at North Shore University Hospital, part of Northwell Health in New York.

“If you require ECMO for respiratory failure, your only ticket out is through lung transplantation,” he said.

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