New Mexico Man Who Needed a Double Lung Transplant After Getting COVID Says ‘Take It Seriously’

Julie Mazziotta
·3 min read

Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital Arthur Sanchez

When COVID-19 first hit the U.S. at the beginning of 2020, Arthur Sanchez thought that it was “nothing big” and no more severe than the flu. The 52-year-old, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, assumed that as a healthy adult with only minor preexisting conditions — he had moderate high blood pressure and was slightly overweight — he would be fine if he did contract the virus.

But then Sanchez watched his mother and sister contract COVID-19, along with his 50-year-old brother-in-law, who died from the virus. And on April 12, one day after his brother-in-law’s death, he woke up with shortness of breath and a fever.

“I would probably compare it to being underwater too long and not being able to come up for air,” Sanchez said in a press conference, the Associated Press reported.

Sanchez went to the hospital that day, and seven months later, is just at the start of a long recovery from four months on a ventilator and a double lung transplant, the first performed on a COVID-19 patient at Dignity Health St. Joseph's Medical Center in Phoenix.

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Sanchez, a utility worker, spent five months in New Mexico hospitals, and 116 days hooked up to a ventilator.

It was “a scary situation to be in,” he said, explaining that the inability to fully breathe while sickened with COVID-19 is “all your mind starts to focus on.”

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After several months, Sanchez began to improve and was able to come off the ventilator. But X-rays and CT scans showed that his lungs were now too damaged to fully function, and doctors decided that he needed a double lung transplant.

"A double lung transplant was necessary because the lungs had scarred to the extent that they were not going to recover," said Dr. Rajat Walia, a pulmonologist and medical director of the lung transplant program St. Joseph’s. "... There is a point at which we know that these lungs are not going to recover. Such was Arthur's case."

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Walia and his fellow doctors performed the transplant on Aug. 16, and Sanchez has spent the months since in Phoenix, recovering from the procedure. He now has to take immune-suppressing medications to prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted lungs, and will have to worry about long-term effects from COVID-19.

“My immune system is so suppressed now to avoid ... rejection. I am more susceptible to any type of virus, sickness, illness, whatever,” Sanchez said. “So, I have to be careful with what I do, with what I eat.”

Sanchez, who broke down in tears several times during the press conference, said he considers himself a “walking miracle,” and urged others not to doubt the severity of COVID-19 like he had.

“I’ve lost 50-plus lbs. from this illness. I don’t recommend it as a diet plan for anybody,” he said. “My attitude has changed. You need to take it seriously.”