'This disease is not a joke': Lake Zurich man thought COVID-19 was a hoax, then needed new lungs

  • Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich received a lifesaving double-lung transplant after his body was ravaged by the COVID-19 virus.

    Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich received a lifesaving double-lung transplant after his body was ravaged by the COVID-19 virus. Courtesy of Northwestern Medicine

  • Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich, who underwent a double-lung transplant after contracting COVID-19, responds to a question during a news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

    Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich, who underwent a double-lung transplant after contracting COVID-19, responds to a question during a news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich was dying from the COVID-19 virus before he received a lifesaving double-lung transplant.

    Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich was dying from the COVID-19 virus before he received a lifesaving double-lung transplant. Courtesy of Northwestern Medicine

  • Doctors perform a 10-hour surgery July 5 to replace the lungs of Lake Zurich resident Brian Kuhns.

    Doctors perform a 10-hour surgery July 5 to replace the lungs of Lake Zurich resident Brian Kuhns. Courtesy Northwestern Medicine

  • Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich, right, shakes hands with one of his surgeons after his lifesaving double-lung transplant.

    Brian Kuhns of Lake Zurich, right, shakes hands with one of his surgeons after his lifesaving double-lung transplant. Courtesy of Northwestern Medicine

  • Lake Zurich resident Brian Kuhns, left, who underwent a double-lung transplant after contracting COVID-19, is with his wife, Nancy, during a news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

    Lake Zurich resident Brian Kuhns, left, who underwent a double-lung transplant after contracting COVID-19, is with his wife, Nancy, during a news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Dr. Rafael Garza Castillon, center, a thoracic surgeon with the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, speaks Thursday at a news conference about the double-lung transplants he and a team of doctors performed on two Chicago-area residents.

    Dr. Rafael Garza Castillon, center, a thoracic surgeon with the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, speaks Thursday at a news conference about the double-lung transplants he and a team of doctors performed on two Chicago-area residents. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/2/2020 1:02 PM

A Lake Zurich man who was the second known COVID-19 patient in the nation to undergo a double-lung transplant thought the virus was a hoax until he contracted it.

"This disease is not a joke," 62-year-old Brian Kuhns said during a news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "I was perfectly healthy. This thing took me down, hard."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Wearing a hospital gown and protective mask, Kuhns appeared at the media event with fellow double-lung-transplant recipient Mayra Ramirez, a 28-year-old Chicagoan, who was the first known coronavirus patient to undergo the procedure.

Ramirez had the surgery at Northwestern Memorial on June 5. Kuhns underwent the procedure there July 5.

Both patients spent weeks in the hospital's COVID intensive care unit on life-support machines, but they're now breathing on their own without supplemental oxygen.

"I'm getting stronger every day," Kuhns said. "Good people took care of me, saved me. It's a miracle."

Kuhns is still being treated at Northwestern Memorial, while Ramirez has been released.

Kuhns, who owns BK Auto Repair in Schaumburg, first experienced stomach pains, a fluctuating temperature and other COVID-19 symptoms in March, according to Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine lung transplant program.

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When Kuhns developed a cough, too, he went to a local emergency department and then was admitted to an undisclosed hospital to be treated for the virus.

Eventually he was transferred to Northwestern Memorial for consideration for a double-lung transplant.

The surgery took 10 hours -- a few hours longer than normal due to severe internal damage from the virus.

In a news release, Kuhn's wife, Nancy, said her husband thought the pandemic was a hoax before he got sick. During Thursday's news conference, Kuhns admitted he didn't take COVID-19 precautions before his diagnosis.

"I just went through (life) normal," he said. "I didn't wear a mask or nothing. But it's real, no doubt."

Because of the illness, Kuhns spent 100 days on life support and went four months without seeing his family.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nancy Kuhns sat with her husband at the news conference. She said she feels "overwhelmed and thankful."

Nancy Kuhns also urged people to take the COVID-19 threat seriously.

"Stay safe and listen to what they're telling you about washing, masks and everything," she said. "It's not a hoax."

While noting a lung transplant isn't for all COVID-19 patients, Bharat said it may offer some people another option for survival.

"Mayra and Brian are living proof of that," Bharat said.

Thoracic surgeon Dr. Rafael Garza Castillon said Northwestern is now considering performing the procedure on other patients who've eliminated the virus and have no other significant organ failure.

A Web page established to help Kuhns pay his medical bills is at gofundme.com/f/brian-kuhns-and-family.

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

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