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Man recovering after Orlando's first COVID lung transplant

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To the soft strum of a guitar, David Wilkinson sings “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” drawing breath into his new lungs after every verse. Sitting inside AdventHealth’s Bartch Transplant House, surrounded by the people who helped save his own life, it’s a prescient message.

Months earlier, Wilkinson was bedridden in a health facility in Naples after contracting COVID-19. He was intubated, sedated, near death. It was clear he wasn’t going to recover; his lungs were irreparably damaged by the virus. His family said their goodbyes and prepared to remove life supports.

Then, as the song goes, how precious did that grace appear.

Dr. Cynthia Gries, AdventHealth Orlando’s medical director for lung transplant, found out about Wilkinson after she was tagged in a group on Facebook for physicians who are mothers. He was a complete stranger, but she thought maybe he could be a candidate for a lung transplant, a procedure reserved for patients with extremely severe cases of COVID-19.

“There were some that felt he wasn’t savable. But she just knew,” Karen Wilkinson, David’s wife, told WESH 2 News.

David Wilkinson, AdventHealth Orlando's first COVID lung transplant recipient, with music therapist Hannah Warner as she plays guitar.

At the time, only a few hundred COVID-related lung transplants had been done in the United States. Wilkinson, a 50-year-old urologist from Naples, would be the first COVID patient to receive a new set of lungs at AdventHealth Orlando’s Transplant Institute, thanks to that unexpected connection over social media.

“It blows my mind,” Gries said. “All because of this group I joined maybe 20 years ago.”

When Wilkinson arrived at AdventHealth he was still too sick to undergo the surgery. Gries explained that he had pneumonia, a very high fever and multiple infections, and his muscles had atrophied. Physical therapy teams worked extensively with Wilkinson to help him regain strength to stand and walk.

Then, four months after he’d first been admitted to the ICU in Naples, Wilkinson received a new set of lungs.

“I never imagined in my wildest dreams I’d be the recipient of two new lungs, or need them,” he said. “This is a true gift. It’s a miracle.”

David and Karen later went to stay at the Bartch Transplant House, the affordable housing option AdventHealth offers during transplant recovery. Sing-alongs with his wife, Gries and music therapist Hannah Warner were as crucial as the medical treatment, Wilkinson said, adding that his favorite requests were Tom Petty and The Eagles.

He hopes his story will inspire people to register as organ donors and said he was thankful to the family of the donor whose lungs he received. But most of all, he credits Gries and her determination to help him.

“I’m just eternally grateful for her believing in me.”

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