DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — A North Carolina man recently became the first person with COVID-19-related lung damage to receive a lung transplant at Duke Hospital after the virus left him unable to breathe on his own.
When Ronnie Hooker woke up in early February with what he thought were sinus problems, he took some medicine and felt better, until he got to work the next day.
Hooker lives in Greenville and has worked as a painter for years.
“I told one of the guys that worked with me, ‘Man, you might have to call for some help; I can’t breathe,'” he recalled saying. “I didn’t know what was going on. I’m thinking, ‘Man, I don’t want to die here.'”
Paramedics suspected, right away, what was wrong, asking Hooker whether he’d been exposed to COVID-19. Hooker was rushed to Vidant Hospital in Greenville where he learned he had COVID-19 and pneumonia.
Weeks of treatment failed, and doctors gave him some difficult news.
“He said, ‘I’m just going to tell you, point-blank, you’re not getting better. If anything, you’re getting worse,’ he told me,” remembered Hooker. “He said, ‘Without some new lungs, you’ll expire.'”
“That’s when all the praying and everything started beginning,” Hooker added.
Hooker was transferred to Duke, where Dr. John Reynolds became his transplant pulmonologist. When Hooker arrived, “He was dependent on machines to stay alive, and his lungs weren’t going to recover,” explained Reynolds.
Hooker would become Duke’s first COVID-related lung transplant. He has sarcoidosis, which Dr. Reynolds says can make someone more susceptible to COVID-19 complications.
But Reynolds said the virus is what damaged his lungs beyond repair.
“Primarily what Ronnie sustained was COVID related,” he noted, adding that a transplant was Hooker’s only chance for survival.
For Hooker, the whole situation was overwhelming.
“Everything was happening so fast,” he said. “I was happy and scared and everything… just knowing I had a second chance.”
Hooker was placed on the transplant list, and it didn’t take long for doctors to find a match.
“It was a miracle,” said Hooker. “It couldn’t have been nobody but God.”
Reynolds said the transplant had no complications. “He sailed through it on every level,” he said.
With his new lungs, Hooker is slowly getting stronger.
“It’s a treat just to see him smile and get up and be independent; that’s pretty great,” said Reynolds.
Hooker is thankful for his family, his doctors, and his donor and donor’s family for giving him the chance to get better, but he still has a long way to go to get back to where he was before he came down with COVID-19.
“I wouldn’t want to see anyone else go through this. It ain’t nothing easy,” Hooker said.
He will go through about six months of rehab as he adjusts to his new lungs.
As he keeps working toward recovery, he begs people to take the virus seriously.
“If they tell you to wear a mask, wear it, wear it. Stay as safe as you can,” he implored. “It really ain’t nothing to play with.”