DETROIT (WXYZ) — Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19-related lung transplants have been on the rise across the United States.
Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit says even with three lung transplant centers, the need for donors is higher than ever.
A Michigan couple, Samer and Karen Suleiman, not only fought their battles with the virus, but one of them also faced a near-death experience resulting in a double lung transplant.
"When we got COVID, I never thought we would get hit so hard," Karen Suleiman said.
It all started with shortness of breath when Samer Suleiman and his wife were admitted to the hospital.
Karen recovered, but 61-year-old Samer was put on a ventilator.
"They kept saying it's cruel for us to keep him alive, take him off life support, and we refused because the only thing wrong with him was that his lungs were going bad," Karen Suleiman said.
After eight long weeks on the ventilator, Samer Suleiman was transferred to Henry Ford Hospital, where he received a double lung transplant. Post-surgery, the family was told that COVID-19 had completely destroyed his lungs.
"They said they were just like wet sponges, it was just ravaged. Not one piece of his lungs was safe, there was nothing left, it’s the worst disease out there," Karen Suleiman said.
Dr. Lisa Allenspach from Henry Ford’s transplant institute says the grueling surgery is the only solution and that’s why about 1 in 10 lung transplants in the country now go to COVID-19 patients.
"Not a week goes by that we get calls requesting, evaluation for generally young individuals with lung failure, on ventilators," Allenspach said.
In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that the U.S. now faces a shortage of lung donors. It's been leaving doctors to make the hard decision on who gets the next available lung.
"Individuals who are selected are people who are felt that they are not going to be able to recover their lung function and they have no other option," Lisa Allenspach said.
As more variants like omicron emerge, doctors are worried that the need for lung transplants will continue to rise further.
"The majority of people that we are seeing for lung transplant right now are infected with the delta variant, but I think that will be rapidly changing as this new variant is so much more contagious," Allenspach said.
Meanwhile, doctors say for now, the vaccine is the best defense. Samer Suleiman feels his battle with COVID-19 is a testament to why people should not delay getting the shot.
"Seriously, you cannot take a chance with your life because you never know how it's going to affect you. COVID is a horrible thing to go through for sure," Samer Suleiman said.
With the holidays right around the corner, people are being urged to mask up and practice social distancing wherever possible.