Just months ago, Renato Aquino's family was told to say their goodbyes and start planning funeral arrangements.
But Aquino, a health care worker from suburban Glenview Heights, defied the odds and received one of the first-known "COVID-to-COVID" double lung transplants in the U.S.
Alongside his niece, the 65-year-old addressed reporters at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Friday, which marked exactly one year since he experienced shortness of breath and drove himself to an emergency room.
From that day on, Aquino said, his life completely changed.
He was placed on a ventilator and given convalescent plasma before being transferred to a different hospital, according to a press release from Northwestern Medicine.
There, he was treated using an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which pumps and oxygenates an individual's blood outside their body.
Aquino was taken off ECMO after two months, but his lungs struggled to recover, and he remained on a ventilator.
"Renato was running out of options... and running out of time, so we knew this was probably his only and last option," said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and director of Northwestern Medicine's Lung Transplant Program.
Bharat, who performed the surgery, used lungs from a donor who previously had COVID-19 and died of unrelated causes. The lung transplant team performed multiple tests that examined the donor’s lung fluid to ensure the individual had cleared the virus from their body, hospital officials explained.
“Current consensus guidelines are that donors with a history of COVID-19 can be used for organ transplantation as long as they have clinically recovered and have negative testing,” said Dr. Michael Ison, infectious diseases and organ transplantation specialist at Northwestern Medicine. "...This transplant demonstrates the safety of using organs from these donors."
Northwestern Medicine surgeons have performed 20 double lung transplants on COVID survivors, the most of any in the world, the health system said.
Aquino, the recent recipient, expressed thanks for his new lungs and the doctors who made the revolutionary surgery possible.
"I am still having a good life, I think so," he said. "There is a long way to go. I got a determination to do well... determination to prove they are not sorry for giving me a second chance."