5 On Your Side

'My only thought was keep breathing:' Sampson County native needed double lung transplant to survive COVID-19

Posted August 27, 2020 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated August 27, 2020 6:35 p.m. EDT

— At 28, she’s a COVID-19 survivor, but only after receiving the nation’s first double lung transplant as a COVID-19 patient.

"What they don’t tell you is that yes, people do recover, are recovering, but they are left with many side effects," said Mayra Ramirez.

Raised in Sampson County, Ramirez spoke with Monica Laliberte about what she’s been though and the struggle she has ahead.

Ramirez, who was an active, healthy young woman before COVID-19, spent more than a month kept alive by machines, and her family was told the end was near.

"My liver was starting to fail and my kidneys were starting to fail — most of my organs," Ramirez recalled. "The damage to my lungs was irreversible."

The damage COVID-19 did to Mayra's lung

Ramirez got COVID-19 in April.

She doesn’t know how she got it, but she knew she needed to go to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, where she lives now.

"Everything happened so quickly. They’re giving me oxygen and then they’re telling me, 'Hey, you’re going to be put on a ventilator,’" she said.

Ramirez had 10 minutes to call her mother in Clinton.

"I hadn’t told my mother in North Carolina, or anyone in North Carolina, that I was feeling sick," she said. "Mostly because I didn’t want to worry her."

Mayra Ramirez before her lifesaving surgery

She’d been healthy and active other than an auto-immune condition that had her on steroids, but she spent the next six weeks on life support.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, her family couldn’t visit. Then she became so ill that doctors called her mother.

"She was told that I wasn’t gonna make it past the night. And then she and two of my sisters took the first flight from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Chicago to say goodbye. She was anticipating to receive a corpse," said Ramirez.

Her father stayed in Clinton to make funeral arrangements, Ramirez said.

When she survived that night, her doctor offered a final option — a double lung transplant, the first for a COVID-19 patient in the United States.

Within 48 hours, Ramirez was in surgery. When she awoke, she says she was struggling to breathe.

"My only thought was, you know, like keep breathing," she said.

Ramirez overheard nurses talking and said that’s how she learned she had a lung transplant. She’s been working on her recovery ever since and is still in a lot of pain.

"I have over 17 prescriptions, one to four pills each, and I’m working on my strength and my endurance, still learning how to use my new lungs," she said.

Ramirez doesn’t cover her scars, especially the one on her throat. She said she wants people to see what COVID-19 can do.

Mayra and her doctors post-transplant

As for her future, doctors tell her she may get back to her baseline within a year.

"Which, at that point, one of my goals is to hopefully be able to go skydiving with Dr. Bharat, my surgeon," she said.

Focused on that recovery, Ramirez can't even begin to think about her out-of-pocket medical costs. Her family created a Go Fund Me to help her with those bills.

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