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Milwaukee woman who needed double lung transplant after COVID-19 battle is out of the hospital

Posted at 7:58 PM, Nov 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 07:54:05-05

MADISON — A Milwaukee community activist who needed a double lung transplant after her battle with COVID-19 is now out of the hospital.

Her doctors are talking about her remarkable recovery, as they are still trying to uncover more about COVID-10 and its effects.

Carmen Lerma was rushed to Ascension St. Francis hospital back in July, unable to breathe. What ensued was a near-death battle with COVID-19, almost five months in different hospitals, and a double lung transplant. Now, we're able to see the moment she was reunited with her family.

Video captures the moment Carmen Lerma said an emotional goodbye to the nurses on her transplant team at University Hospital in Madison.

"Every single one of you here really made a difference for me. I wouldn't be here today. Thank you," Lerma said.

They clapped for her, as she was wheeled through the hospital.

Then, the touching reunion outside with her husband, brother and mother, who she hadn't been able to see in person through her entire battle.

"I just want to be with her and hold her. It's been a long while,” said her husband, Hector Lerma.

"Actually, physically touching her and giving her a hug - we haven't been able to do that in over five months now. We're ecstatic,” says brother Mario Ortiz.

"My heart was pounding,” Lerma says. “I haven't seen them in a while. To just get up and come to them. It's priceless.”

Just last month, Lerma was hooked up to oxygen 24/7. Her battle with COVID-19 did irreversible damage to both lungs.

“Her lung function was significantly worse than the average transplant patient we see," says uw health cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Dan McCarthy.

Doctors decided a double lung transplant was Lerma's best option, and now, three weeks after getting one, she made time to speak with us following physical therapy.

She will never forget when they first removed her breathing machine.

“When they took it off, and I took that first breath - they said come on you got to breathe, and I went like this - and it felt so amazing because I was able to feel my lungs expand. I don't know if you understand. But to me, that was so awesome because I couldn't feel that before,” says Lerma.

Dr. McCarthy says Lerma's dire need for new lungs put her near the top of the donation list regionally.

But he worries that won't always be the case for others, as the potential need during this pandemic increases.

"We are worried with the amount of COVID that we're seeing - not only in the U.S. but in our area of Wisconsin, that there may be more patients like Carmen in the future who are able to make it through the acute phase of their COVID illness but who may never return to the normal lung function they had before they got sick,” McCarthy said.

Lerma is not out of the woods yet. She'll still be closely monitored for at least a year. She's already working on a letter to her donor's family, to make sure that they know the organ donation gave her a second chance at life.

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