Transplant Story: Conquering COVID-19
Our board director Lara Govendo conducts a follow-up interview with Maria Urrechaga discussing her encounter with COVID-19.
Walk me through how your COVID-19 experience unfolded for you.
I work in an open-spaced building. I’m an Engineering Management Consultant for a Department of Defense subcontractor and we work in close quarters. I’m always worried about people coming in from out of town. That particular week, we had people in from different offices and regions for meetings. I’m always “Mrs. Lysol,” spraying and sanitizing everything. Monday was a travel day for everyone at work and Tuesday, my husband had to travel out of town for his job. By Wednesday, I had a splitting headache. We finished our meetings early on Thursday, so I had time to work on a proposal while in the office. That night, I had friends over for dinner and I had started with the sniffles. I was exhausted from working longer hours. Friday, I worked from home. The next week I learned that the satellite hospital where I get my routine labs drawn was shut down because of a COVID-positive patient, the same day I had been there. I started to worry since my symptoms were getting worse.
What symptoms did you have?
By the following Thursday, I had a runny nose, sore throat, increased heart rate, low-grade fevers, and difficulty breathing. I took the online COVID-19 questionnaire, as they denied the in-person screening test and told me to see an ENT instead. I waited until morning to contact my transplant center and schedule a telehealth appointment with my lung transplant doctor. Afterward, he coordinated a COVID test with infectious disease doctors for the same day. I was sent to the drive-through testing site at the Medical University of South Carolina. The next day, my symptoms worsened—my doctor told me to go to the emergency room where they later admitted me.
What was the proposed treatment plan?
They tried IVIG because my hemoglobin was low; however, I had a reaction to it which caused my blood pressure and heart rate to drop quickly. They slapped a mask on my face, draped a white sheet over me, and transferred me to the ICU. It took four days to receive the COVID-positive test results. Despite multiple attempts at starting an IV, I wasn’t allowed to go to interventional radiology to have a central line placed. I started on four liters of oxygen, Zithromax, hydroxychloroquine, and Solumedral (with a prednisone taper).
What thoughts were running through your head when you were in the ICU?
Nobody was allowed to be there with me due to the “no visitor” rule. In communicating with my loved ones, I had to release them from their anxiety regarding my health crisis. All I could do was pray about it and ask for others to do the same. It was scary because my first thought was whether I would hug my son again. I know it was really hard on him. My husband has a fixer personality and he felt helpless not being by my side and not knowing who to call if something happened to me. Updates were hard when he didn’t hear from me directly. My husband and son couldn’t do anything, so I felt bad that they were separated from me. We communicated via FaceTime, but it was emotionally very hard on all of us.
Once I tested positive, the most alarming thought was: who have I been around? Second thought: I hope I didn’t spread this to anyone else. After a short five-minute pity party, a paralyzing thought ran through my head: does this mean that I’m going on a ventilator? I was struggling to breathe, which triggered PTSD from all the times I couldn’t breathe before my transplant. Regardless, I would’ve preferred to be on a ventilator, rather than have that choking feeling while fighting to breathe. I was able to stave off those thoughts with the truth that I wasn’t at that point yet and I still had other options. I don’t know much about this virus, but I do know that God has not let me down yet, and I don’t have a feeling that He will. I also wrestled with survivor’s guilt.
What kept you strong to pull through this?
Number one is God. I visualized Him holding my hand—my faith is my greatest strength. Before the pandemic, my friends at work had started a Bible study. They formed a prayer circle and were texting to check on me. Focusing on pulling through for my son and husband was strengthening. Also, having confidence that my doctors had my back if I couldn’t speak for myself was reassuring.
What words of wisdom do you have for the community about COVID-19?
It’s a paralyzing thought to go back to what I felt like before transplant. There’s a fine balance between worrying and knowing that everything is going to be okay. Listening to your body and that gut feeling is essential—you are not crazy. Pay attention to your symptoms—if something is off, you have to figure out what the problem is. And don’t stop chasing it down until you do. You are your own best advocate. Expecting someone else to do it for you is unrealistic. Make your wishes known. If others see your fighting spirit, they will pick up the baton for you and advocate on your behalf when you can’t yourself. Be vigilant—self-accountability is vital. Having gone through other health complications, I would definitely say that I’ve been through worse.
I’m in no way saying that everyone will have the same outcome as I did. Part of the responsibility of surviving something like this is sharing your testimony of how you made it. If this can ease other people’s fears, then I know I’m doing my part.
Maria Urrechaga is 54 and lives with her husband and family outside of Charleston, South Carolina. CF, and her double‑lung transplant, has shaped Maria into the person she is today, but by no means defines her life. Maria is grateful for the opportunity to get married, watch her son grow into an adult, and pursue her interests. Her passions include engineering, church ministry, and working on cars with her husband. She inspires the world with her tenacious spirit and she’s determined to persevere no matter what she faces.