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UPMC performs record number of lung transplants despite COVID-19

PITTSBURGH — The coronavirus has left its mark on our country’s health care system, including a drastic decline in the number of transplants performed over the last eight weeks.

However, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, it was a much different story.

Joshua Sarchet’s music therapy is emotional to watch. His wife, Laura, sings along as he recovers from a double-lung transplant at UPMC.

For the past two years, he's struggled with three rare conditions, and by February, his only option was a transplant. But then, COVID-19 hit.

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“I can’t even separate the two. Like the pandemic and Josh’s transplant,” Laura Sarchet said.

Josh Sarchet's health was rapidly declining, and in early March, there were still a lot of questions about the virus. Could the donor organs be infected? Would UPMC’S transplant team have to travel to a hot spot?

“One of the doctors here said they'd be willing to go to New York City for Josh and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” Laura Sarchet said.

By April, Dr. Pablo Sanchez, UPMC’s surgical director for lung transplant said, they found a donor. But at the last second, the donor had a COVID-19 scare, and it was now or never.

“We talked to Josh about this. Are you OK with this risk? And he understood that he was dying,” Sanchez said.

His transplant team came up with a detailed safety plan, and the surgery was a success. It put Josh in a small but fortunate group of people.

A recent study by The Lancet found that transplants in the United States are down more than 51% since the COVID-19 outbreak started​.

But UPMC managed to do a record 12 lung transplants in the month of April. It usually does about six.

So why the success?

Sanchez said western Pennsylvania never turned into a hot spot, so they had open intensive care unit beds. Other hospitals were passing on organs that UPMC’s team had a strategy to handle.

“Six weeks after and he's going home. If we hadn't made that decision, he'd probably be dead. He's 31 years old. How unfair would be that?” Sanchez said.

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Sanchez said UPMC does not accept COVID-19-positive organs.

In Josh Sarchet’s case, the donor was next to an infected patient the day before but tested negative before the transplant.