Double Lung Transplant Patient With COVID-19 Describes Gasping For Air

Download Audio
Thomas Steele in the hospital. (Courtesy of the Steele family)
Thomas Steele in the hospital. (Courtesy of the Steele family)

If more of us could see what frontline workers witness in the war against COVID-19 — people gasping for air and lungs shutting down — maybe more people would understand the seriousness of the disease.

Thomas Steele has been there. The 50-year-old was healthy with no preexisting conditions, and he was working in sales at a New Braunfels, Texas, construction company when he contracted COVID-19. He didn’t worry about it too much, but then it got bad.

He was hospitalized in San Antonio and placed on an ECMO machine, a last-ditch treatment that does the job of a patient’s heart or lungs by moving blood and oxygen. He was tethered to the machine for two months, but still his condition worsened.

His lungs deteriorated so severely that he was transferred to Houston Methodist Hospital, where surgeon Dr. Thomas MacGillivray performed a double lung transplant that saved his life.

“In all of this terrible pandemic, which has been a scourge to the whole world, Mr. Steele's story is one that we can all be joyful about,” MacGillivray says. “It's a real victory over this terrible disease.”

Steele had the surgery about a month ago and is now recovering at a rehab facility in Texas. Despite his ordeal, he considers himself one of the lucky ones because he lived to tell his story.

Thomas Steele and his wife, Rhonda. (Courtesy of the Steele Family)
Thomas Steele and his wife, Rhonda. (Courtesy of the Steele Family)

Up until he received his diagnosis, Steele says he and his wife were following safety precautions such as wearing masks, washing their hands and not visiting the restaurants and vineyards they love as often as they used to. But he was still skeptical and didn’t think the disease was that serious. Now he wants everyone to know what it’s truly like.

“Take it from somebody who's been in the hospital for over three months, you know, it's nothing you want to do, nothing you want to go through,” he says. “I can remember fighting for every breath of air for a couple of weeks period there where you're just gasping for every breath. It's not a joke. It's nothing to play with. It's real and it's serious.”

Steele was exposed to the coronavirus when there was an outbreak at his office. After testing positive, his daughter, who’s studying to be a doctor, suggested he buy a pulse oximeter to measure his blood-oxygen level. He’s now recommending everyone get one.

“It tells you a lot really quick,” he says. “I was getting shortness of breath, almost like somebody was sitting on my chest. And so then I was checking this thing, and I went like from 88s to 84s to 85 and I kept getting worse. So I immediately called back to the ER and asked them and they said, 'Well, if it's that low, you need to come in right now.’ ”

By the time he was transferred to Houston Methodist, Dr. MacGillivray says Steele’s lungs were “totally destroyed.”

“Viruses are nasty little things,” MacGillivray says. “The body unleashes the full effect of our immune system in an attempt to neutralize and kill the virus. But what happens in some people is that the immune system, in an effort of trying to destroy the virus, destroys our own lungs or other organs.”

That’s exactly what had happened to Steele’s lungs. He says the experience was terrifying.

“You pretty much are gasping for every breath, and you're thinking about every breath,” Steele says. “And every breath you take, you feel like a little click in the back of your throat because you're just taking so much oxygen in and stuff and it's just you're always just like gasping. You're sucking for air.”

MacGillivray says most people whose lungs are in that condition don’t survive. But from the moment he laid eyes on him, he says he knew Steele was “a special guy.”

“Through part miracle, part of just incredible physical and mental and spiritual strength on Mr. Steele's part, he was able to survive it and prevail through it,” he says. “And then we were fortunate to get a set of lungs offered for him at the right time and got his transplant done very well.”

Especially with the holidays coming up, both MacGillivray and Steele are urging people to take the coronavirus seriously and follow safety guidelines to prevent infection.

“As a community and as a society, we're all interconnected and things like wearing a mask protects ourselves and helps us protect each other, and it's really a small sacrifice to make to keep everybody as safe as we possibly can,” MacGillivray says. “It's something that we can do that's positive to help.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray and Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 18, 2020.


Headshot of Robin Young

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.


Headshot of Samantha Raphelson

Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live