CHICAGO — Although he received a double lung transplant last year, when Edgardo Diaz became sick with COVID-19 in April, he showed no fear.
“I wasn’t scared,” said the 30-year-old Oak Forest resident. “I’ve been through worse.”
Diaz has cystic fibrosis, a disorder that causes damage to the lungs, digestive system and other organs. He has learned to stay calm when faced with medical challenges.
Now, Diaz is what University of Chicago Medicine doctors believe to be the first lung transplant patient in the world to receive plasma and recover from COVID-19.
Called convalescent plasma, blood is taken from people who have recovered from the coronavirus with the idea that it should be rich in virus-fighting antibodies.
Diaz’s transplant meant he was ineligible for many trials, but he was a candidate for plasma.
Dr. Maria Lucia Madariaga, a thoracic surgeon leading the University of Chicago plasma trial, said they cannot draw conclusions from one case, but she is encouraged by seeing no side effects among patients receiving plasma, making it an apparently low-risk option.
After Diaz tested positive for COVID-19, doctors monitored him closely. When his kidneys began failing, he was hospitalized.
Doctors were able to give him plasma before he became sicker or needed a ventilator.
“We caught him early enough,” Madariaga said. “He’s lucky in that way.”
Diaz, an emergency medical technician, said he was sure to wear a mask and gloves everywhere when the virus hit Illinois. “I still managed to catch it,” he said.
First came a fever, then he lost his sense of taste. “I noticed that I wasn’t eating like at all,” he said. “That’s not normal.”
After he received plasma on April 25, his 104-degree temperature subsided. His breathing and kidney function improved, and he tested negative for the virus nine days later. On May 1, he was released from the hospital.
“I feel great,” Diaz said Tuesday.
More research is needed to know how plasma might work best and for which patients.
“From a scientific perspective, one case really doesn’t mean much,” said Remzi Bag, medical director of the University of Chicago’s lung transplant program. “I would say we have to wait for results of the full clinical trial.” Bag performed Diaz’s transplant last year.
The University of Chicago maintains its own plasma banks, garnering interest from hundreds of donors but hoping for more. The hospital is collecting plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19. Donors must be 18 or older, eligible to donate blood and have tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered. People interested in donating can apply for screening on the COVID-19 convalescent plasma study website.
Diaz believes his hours in the gym — often three hours a day, five days a week — kept him strong.
Undergoing a lung transplant is a daunting procedure; patients are typically critically ill before receiving an organ and often have complications after the surgery, Bag said. It is also emotionally fraught.
“It’s a lot to take in for somebody, let alone a 29-year-old who, really, all his life he’s been sick,” Bag said.
Diaz said a lifetime of learning to keep faith taught him that staying positive is the only option. That’s why he loves his job as an EMT. He enjoys encouraging people during frightening moments.
“You can impact somebody’s life by doing the smallest thing,” he said.
Since recovering, Diaz has been at home, waiting to return to work. He wants to wait until the coronavirus cases ebb, but he is eager to get back to a profession he loves.
In the meantime, he got two puppies — Dallas, a chow chow, and Teddy, a Yorkie — and is looking ahead to becoming a paramedic.
“Things get better at the end,” he said. “There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
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