‘I Have Someone Else’s Lungs’: Meet a 28-Year-Old Who Survived COVID-19 via a Double Lung Transplant
First came a constellation of symptoms: coughing, dizziness, loss of taste and smell.
Then, one day this past April, Mayra Ramirez woke up feeling so weak that when she got up, she fell over. “Everything was, like, dark,” the 28-year-old told FRONTLINE in the new documentary American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil, releasing Tuesday, Nov. 17. She remembers calling out to her boyfriend for help, knowing she needed to go to the emergency room.
It was the start of a journey that would put Ramirez on a ventilator, fighting for her life — and ultimately would result in her becoming among the first COVID-19 patients in the U.S. to receive a double lung transplant.
Ramirez is one of the Americans who share their stories in FRONTLINE’s latest documentary, from a production team headed by Mike Shum and Blair Woodbury. Filmed across a divided and struggling country over much of 2020, the documentary captured the diverse perspectives of a number of people — a pastor, a barber, a doctor, an activist and more — as they dealt with COVID-19 in their communities, responded to George Floyd’s killing, and experienced the election and its aftermath as COVID cases and deaths mounted once again.
The coronavirus has been particularly lethal for people who are elderly, but as with Ramirez, who has an underlying health condition, youth doesn’t guarantee protection against becoming critically ill. At one point in Ramirez’s hospitalization, doctors called her mother to say her daughter might not make it through the night.
“We were just planning to go pick up a corpse,” her younger brother told FRONTLINE through tears in the above excerpt from the film.
Ramirez, who lives in the Chicago area, was released after a double lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. As she tells FRONTLINE in American Voices, recovery has been difficult.
“When I first woke up from my lung transplant, I was a vegetable,” Ramirez said. “I couldn’t move a finger, I couldn’t, you know, I could barely wiggle my toes. I couldn’t talk. I was in a lot of pain. I was uncomfortable.”
Ramirez thought she had been intubated and sedated for a few days. In fact, when she awoke, it was June, and she had been under for about six weeks. What she saw and heard on TV — images from the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed — only added to her sense of disorientation.
“Honestly, can I just go back to being sedated and please can I wake up when this is over?” she remembers thinking.
As this tumultuous year has continued, more than 240,000 people in America have died from COVID-19 — a disproportionate number of them Latino and Black. With winter on the horizon, daily case numbers have been reaching record highs. Recent surges in cases are not only a result of increased testing, doctors say; hospitalizations and deaths are also trending upward.
Ramirez, meanwhile, is determined to stay healthy. “I have someone else’s lungs, and [it would] be like a slap in the face if I didn’t try my hardest,” she said.
To hear more of Ramirez’s story — and to follow more people navigating health, economic and social challenges across the country — watch American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil, a FRONTLINE documentary releasing Tues., Nov. 17, 2020. The film premieres at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings), on YouTube, in FRONTLINE’s online collection of films and in the PBS Video App. Text START to 617-300-0810 to receive alerts about FRONTLINE documentaries.