‘It’s your only option’ | Local News
“The only way out is with new lungs.”
That’s what Andy Wilkins and his wife Michelle learned after Andy was hospitalized with COVID-19.
After testing positive on Aug. 1, Wilkins felt himself going downhill quickly. He and Michelle were on a getaway with friends when he started feeling unwell. He contacted his hometown primary care physician in Elizabethtown, who advised him to get tested for coronavirus.
“I started with shortness of breath and my oxygen level was dropping into the eighties,” Wilkins said. “It seemed like no time after receiving my positive test result that I was heading to the hospital. It all happened so fast.”
Over the next few days, Wilkins made two trips to the emergency room. He was admitted to Baptist Health Hardin in Elizabethtown on August 6. On August 26, he was at Norton Hospital in Louisville, on a ventilator and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a heart-lung machine that pumps oxygenated blood through the body. . It allows the lungs to rest while removing carbon dioxide and returning oxygen-filled blood to the body, which helps improve tissue oxygenation.
The machine is used as a last resort for patients with severe respiratory failure due to COVID-19; some patients on ECMO stay there long enough for their lungs to recover. However, others, like Wilkins, are unable to recover due to extensive fibrosis, and ECMO is used to support them as a bridge while they are evaluated and considered for a lung transplant.
Wilkins recalls the conversation about a double lung transplant starting early in her hospital stay. Her pulmonologist at Norton, Dr. Sonia Compton, told her a transplant was her only option.
“Once I got hit by it, it just scared me,” he said. “You don’t know what to expect. All these “what if” scenarios started playing in my mind. »
On the ventilator, Wilkins couldn’t ask Compton any of the thousands of questions that crossed his mind. So he typed them on his iPad.
“What are the odds of getting to a place where you can live a long and healthy life as if nothing had happened,” he wrote. “What are the potential complications? Without a sugar coating, what is my best possible result? What is the timeline? »
But Wilkins’ main concern was for his wife and daughters, then aged 15 and 7.
“I just want to get home as fast as possible,” he wrote to Compton. “You don’t realize how many things you take for granted in life until something like this hits you like a brick wall. I don’t know what else to say I want to go home. I miss my girls like crazy.
Once Wilkins and Michelle made the decision to do the double lung transplant, he was transferred to UK HealthCare Chandler Hospital under the care of Dr Sravanthi Nandavaram, Medical Director of the UK Transplant Center Lung Transplant Programme.
On October 19, Wilkins underwent the double lung transplant surgery by Dr. Suresh Keshavamurthy, Surgical Director of the Lung Transplant Program. It was a long and technically difficult surgery, during which the EMCO and the tracheostomy were removed.
Twelve hours after his operation, he was taken off the ventilator and only has a nasal cannula left for supplemental oxygen. Wilkins took his first breath with his new lungs.
“I have never in my life faced anxiety,” he said. “But the anxiety kind of took hold of me and it took a lot of reassurances from Dr Nandavaram and the staff. They said, hey, you’ve got these brand new lungs and they’re working. You need to trust them. But I didn’t at first. It was something I didn’t know how to trust, or what to lean on.
“It was a pretty incredible feeling,” he continued. “Once I realized I could breathe, the feeling is kind of overwhelming. It just overwhelms you, as if to say, we’re doing it, we’re alone. It’s pretty amazing.
On November 5, after spending four months in three hospitals, Wilkins returned home. While his wife, Michelle, was with him throughout his stay and his eldest daughter was only able to visit him a few times, Andy had not seen his 7-year-old daughter in over three months.
“That was the hardest part,” he said. “We thought it would be too much for our youngest to see me like this. Throughout it all, not seeing the kids was the hardest part.
Seven months after his transplant, Wilkins is back to work full time. He runs a house building business and the job is not waiting for anyone.
“Dr. (Michael) Anstead told me during my check-up, don’t worry about going back to work so early, you have to take it easy. But I like to keep busy and sitting still isn’t enough for us. So I went back to full-time work about six weeks after the transplant,” he said.
Wilkins thanks Anstead, Nandavaram, Keshavamurthy and his entire care team, including Lung Transplant Advanced Practice Registered Nurses, Lung Transplant Coordinators and his team of physiotherapists for his speedy and remarkable recovery. He continues to see his healthcare team for monthly follow-up appointments.
“Dr. Nandavaram is just exceptional,” he said. “You can see her heart touching things and how much everyone respects and follows her.
“Dr. Nandavaram’s leadership skills are second to none,” he added. “You can see that shine through with all of his staff. You are not just a name on a piece of paper. It’s personal Her personal dedication to her patients is absolutely incredible.
While in Lexington for routine follow-up exams, Wilkins had the chance to visit the Kentucky Research Alliance for Lung Disease, where donated diseased lung tissue is stored. Wilkins donated his old lungs to the biobank where researcher Dr. Jamie Sturgill studies lungs donated by lung transplant patients.
There, floating in the preservative liquid in a specimen cup, is a small piece of Wilkins’ lung. He holds it at eye level as Sturgill explains the degree of scarring in his lung.
No matter how much oxygen they injected into him, Sturgill said, there was no way it could get through his lungs and the rest of his body. There was just too much damage.
The visual impact is powerful, for both Andy and Michelle. There really was no choice but the transplant.
National Gift of Life Month, a month-long celebration to raise awareness about donation, encourage Americans to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors, and honor those who have saved lives through to the donation, just ended. Wilkins has been on the registry for years, but he never really thought about what it meant to be an organ donor until his experience.
“I signed up years ago and never thought twice about it,” he said. “But going through it puts him in a whole new light.”
So what would he say to someone thinking of joining the registry?
“You can give life to so many people,” he said. “The end of a life doesn’t have to be the end. There is so much good that can come from being a giver. So many lives saved, so many second chances given. What do you have to lose?”
More than 1,000 Kentucky residents are waiting to receive hearts, livers, lungs, kidneys and other vital organs. Organ donors offer recipients a second chance at life, but the need for donations far outweighs the number available. Go to registermeky.org for more information and to register.
The COVID-19 vaccine is free and widely available. Go to vaccines.gov/search or text your postal code to GETVAX – 438829 – to find vaccination centers near you.