63-year-old Mark Kuitert said this is how he felt when doctors told him he would need a double lung transplant to survive COVID-19
By George Kovacik
Mark Kuitert was perfectly healthy and enjoying life to the fullest early last June. He was on a hiking trip with his family at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, CO when his grandson fell ill and ended up being hospitalized with COVID-19. A few days later, Mark and other members of his family contracted the virus. Each of those family members recovered, but Mark wasn’t so lucky. After driving home, he began experiencing shortness of breath, lightheadedness, fatigue and a fever of 103 degrees.
“I went to the ER at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center and they had me in a wheelchair before my wife parked the car,” Kuitert said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be good.”
The 63-year-old Kuitert didn’t know it at the time, but the virus had already begun to attack his lungs. It was unusual because he had no pre-existing conditions—no pulmonary fibrosis, no diabetes, no COPD—nothing. He was stunned when his doctors came in and told him he was a candidate for a double lung transplant.
“I couldn’t believe what they were telling me,” Kuitert said. “They did a number of tests and once that was done, I thought that I should go through with it because I knew it was the only way I would get home and back to my family.”
Dr. Soma Jyothula, medical director of the lung transplant program at Memorial Hermann and associate professor of medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, said Kuitert’s lungs were so severely inflamed that he had him transferred to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC) to get him ready for a transplant.
“A transplant is a very big operation and we don’t recommend it for patients unless it is completely necessary,” Jyothula said. “In Mark’s case, a double lung transplant was his only option.”
More than 2,700 lung transplants were performed in the United States in 2019 and approximately two-thirds of those were double lung transplants. Jyothula said that patients survive longer when receiving a double lung transplant as opposed to a single lung transplant. He added that if a patient makes it to one year post-surgery, many times they have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years.
“The two main reasons a person would get a lung transplant are pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema. Now we can add COVID-19 patients to that list,” Jyothula said. “The most common reason why patients are dying from COVID-19 is lung damage. I believe we are going to see even more patients needing lung transplants in the future because of this virus.”
The United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) determines who gets lungs first by using a lung allocation score (LAS) calculator for people over the age of 12. The calculator looks at factors like a person’s blood tests, lung function, their need for oxygen, the medical urgency and how long the patient might survive post-transplant compared to others on the list. The higher the score up to 100, the quicker the transplant. Kuitert was one of the sickest patients with a score near 80.
“Mark’s surgery was very complicated because his lungs were stuck to the chest wall and it took some maneuvering to get them unstuck,” Jyothula said. “We got him through the surgery, and some complications after surgery, and now he is back home. He is a great success story.”
Kuitert went home in November, nearly four months after he entered the hospital. He credits his doctors, nurses, wife, kids and grandkids with pulling him through. Besides being able to be with his family, the best thing that has happened to him since returning home was the fact that he was eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I jumped at the chance to get the vaccine because I do not want to go through the virus again. I don’t think I would make it if I had to go through it again,” Kuitert said. “This virus is real and I consider myself very lucky to still be alive and home with my family. I would encourage everyone to get the vaccine. Trust me, you don’t want to go through what I went through.”
Kuitert was the second person in Texas to receive a double lung transplant after contracting COVID-19. The first such transplant in the state was performed at Memorial Hermann-TMC on Aug. 26, 2020.