COVID-19 patient who received double lung transplant urges others to be safe ahead of holidays

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A New Braunfels man, who battled a serious case of COVID-19, ended up receiving a double lung transplant and will be able to spend the holiday with his family.

Thomas Steele said it was Aug. 20, when doctors told him he had contracted both COVID-19 and pneumonia. Steele was released from the hospital, but then returned in the worst condition. Steele said he spent 58 days on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which is a treatment used to circulate blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream.

"Within about two months, my lungs were not getting any better and they were deteriorating due to COVID-19, and they made a choice that we needed to get a transplant," Steele said. "The research we found is that Houston Methodist is one of the best hospitals for transplants."

Steele was transferred to Houston Methodist, and in a matter of days of getting on the transplant list, they found a match.

"I'm very thankful for the donor who donated the organs to me, my lungs, and their family because they lost somebody for me to get my lungs," Steele said. "I'm very thankful for all my family and friends who have prayed for me and supported me through the whole thing."

Steele, 54, believes he contracted the virus at work and said his wife and other co-workers also tested positive but did not have a severe case similar to his. Steele said before contracting COVID-19 he did not have any pre-existing conditions.

"COVID-19 is really real," Steele said. "It's nothing like sitting in your hospital room, gasping for every breath and air you take. I did that for 58 days and it's very, very (it) takes the energy right out of you as far as that goes."

Steele said he was released from Houston Methodist and is now staying at Nora's Home, while he continues his doctor's appointments and the road to recovery. He is urging the community to be vigilant this holiday season, to avoid more people getting sick and potentially losing their life.

"Just be very, very careful this holiday season," Steele said. "Because it's not only you you're going to affect. But if you're going to have a big gathering, you're going to affect your grandkids, grandparents, and you never know who else you're going to affect."

According to a study from the University of Pennsylvania, which analyzed cell phone data, Harris County is projected to see more than 1,700 COVID-19 cases per day by Dec. 10, and top 2,000 cases per day in four weeks.

Dr. Thomas Giordano, professor and section chief of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said depending on people's behavior this holiday, those numbers could potentially be a lot worse, mirroring Houston's spike back in July.

"People want to do their Christmas shopping and their holiday shopping and get out and do things, and so you're playing the odds," Giordano said. "Projections are projections and they are not inevitable. People can react to a projection and change what they're doing and policy can change in response to a projection. That said, I think that there's a lot of factors in play right now that makes the projection entirely possible, if not an under-projection, frankly."

Dr. Peter Hotez with Baylor College of Medicine told ABC13, based on the current trends, he anticipates about 15,000 Texans will die from COVID-19 between now and following the presidential inauguration and believes thousands more Americans will die nationwide.

"Within a couple of weeks COVID-19 is going to be the single-leading cause of death on a daily basis in the United States," Dr. Hotez said.

Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, echoed the same message but said there is still time for the community to turn things around by following CDC guidelines, wear a mask, and avoid large gatherings to protect you and your family this holiday.

"It's hard," Dr. Troisi said, "We know that, but if we're going to not overwhelm our healthcare system that's what we need to do."

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