Breathing Easy: After a double lung transplant, Brandy Mills feels like a ‘walking miracle.’

After Brandy Mills contracted COVID-19 in the summer of 2021, she spent more than three months in the hospital. She could barely get out of bed. She lost 50 pounds. And her lungs quit working.

Today, she’s back on her feet, thanks to a double lung transplant she received at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center over a year ago. “They call me Superwoman over there,” says the 36-year-old Mills, who lives in Huffman, northeast of Houston. “At my one-year appointment, we went to see the staff I worked with at rehab, and they were in tears when they saw me. They were so excited about how well I was doing.”

Mills and her husband, Robert, came down with COVID-19 at the same time, but it hit Mills much harder. Her mother, who lives with the couple and their 9-year-old daughter, checked on Mills as she slept and saw that her lips were turning blue. She called 911, and an ambulance brought Mills to a nearby hospital. Her oxygen levels were dangerously low; she had pneumonia as well as some internal bleeding. After six weeks in the hospital, her lungs were so badly damaged that her doctors told her she wouldn’t survive unless she could get a transplant.

She was transported to Memorial Hermann-TMC, where Soma Jyothula, MD, associate professor in the Center for Advanced Cardiopulmonary Therapies and Transplantation and Graham Distinguished Professor in Pulmonary Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, got her added to a transplant list.

“The degree of oxygen she was requiring, and the amount of scar tissue and inflammation in her lungs, meant the chance of her recovering lung function to a reasonable amount was highly unlikely,” explains Dr. Jyothula, who is also the medical director of the Lung Transplant Center at Memorial Hermann-TMC.

While waiting for donated lungs to become available, Dr. Jyothula used an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to keep Mills alive by removing blood from her body, adding oxygen and pumping it back in.

“By the time she reached us in the ICU here, she was already breathing pure oxygen and just barely keeping her oxygen saturation at a safe level,” Dr. Jyothula says. “If we had turned off her oxygen, I don’t think she would have lasted more than an hour.”

While some ECMO patients are in a medically induced coma, partly as a way to conserve the amount of oxygen their muscles use, Mills was awake and mobile. “I was walking down the halls with the ECMO,” she recalls. “They wanted to start physical therapy before the transplant to give me a jump start. I was already pretty weak because I hadn’t gotten out of bed for a couple months at that point.” 

“We don’t want patients to be bedbound, if we can help it,” says Dr. Jyothula. “We know keeping patients awake and active also helps with their recovery.” 

Although the wait for a donated set of lungs felt long to Mills while she was tethered to the ECMO machine, it didn’t take as long as it could have. Because the damage to her lungs was so severe, Mills was one of the first patients in line for a transplant.

“The way lung allocation works is based in part on a patient’s lung function and oxygen requirements, so she got a very high score — meaning she’s very sick, so she’s at a higher priority. Patients who are this sick are susceptible to picking up other illnesses while they’re waiting for a transplant, so you want to get the transplant as soon as possible,” Dr. Jyothula says.

The transplant team had to pass up three sets of lungs before finding the right fit, Robert Mills recalls. “Each of the first three had issues. One set was too large for her body. With the second set, the person had asthma and the lungs were damaged. With the third set, the team actually flew to Louisiana to look at them, but they found scar tissue in the lungs,” he says. “On September 30, they got the fourth offer, and the lungs looked good.”

Mills, who hadn’t seen her daughter, Heather, during her hospitalization because of COVID-19 protocols, got to spend some time with her just before the surgery.

“At first they weren’t going to let Heather come, but I said, ‘Look, my daughter hasn’t seen her mother in almost three months, and Brandy’s about to go through a major, life-threatening surgery. She needs to see her,’” says Robert Mills. “In the end, they got special approval for her to come in. But she had to meet with a counselor before she went to see Brandy in her hospital room. The counselor told her, ‘Mommy’s on a lot of machines, so she’s going to look strange, but those machines are there to help her.’”

Heather was overjoyed to see her mom, and didn’t seem to mind all the tubes and wires. “She’s a tough cookie,” says Robert Mills.

Mills’ surgery took more than eight hours, overnight, and her condition started to improve almost immediately afterward, her husband says. “I saw her first thing in the morning and she already looked a whole lot better,” he says. “Within a few days she started getting her color back.”

In fact, her recovery impressed the entire medical team. She was released from the hospital about two weeks after the surgery.

“She was already participating in physical therapy, so we knew she had some physical strength, and she was otherwise healthy apart from the severe damage to her lungs. We thought if we could get her a decent donor lung, she’d do great after that — and she did,” says Dr. Jyothula. “She went from being on ECMO in the ICU to being able to walk out the door 16 days later.”

In the 15 months since her transplant, Mills has gotten back to her old activity level and even started a new job as a paraprofessional helping students learn life skills at Falcon Ridge Elementary School, where her daughter is a student.

“She’s so proud to have me in the same school with her. She’ll tell the other kids, ‘My mom had a double lung transplant,’ like they have any idea what that means,” Mills says. “But I pulled through, and now I’m chasing kids around. It’s a two-story building, so I’m up and down the stairs all day. I feel like a walking miracle.”

“She really is Superwoman,” says Dr. Jyothula. “She’s doing so much. I get to see it because she posts it on Facebook or messages me to say, ‘Look what I’m doing!’ Sometimes I tell her, ‘Hey, back off a little bit!’”

Mills and her husband are still in touch with their Memorial Hermann medical team, who feel like family. “We had a great experience there,” Mills says.  

“Well, the experience of you getting sick wasn’t that great, but you couldn’t have asked for a better team to help you through it,” her husband clarifies. “They were all so knowledgeable, and the doctors were the best. The whole team was phenomenal.”

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Ali Vise