Lung transplants can be one of the most challenging surgeries...

Lung transplants can be one of the most challenging surgeries to perform, said Dr. Zachary Kon, of Northwell Health. The procedure can take from six to 10 hours to complete. Credit: Northwell Health

Northwell Health is now equipped and staffed to perform lung transplants, as the health care system officially launched Long Island's first such program last week at North Shore University Hospital.

Until now, the only hospitals near Long Island performing lung transplants were located in Manhattan or the Bronx.

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The first lung transplant surgery program on Long Island has been approved for North Shore University Hospital and the first surgery took place on Saturday.

There are 1,065 people in the United States waiting for lung transplants, including 97 in New York, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

The number of people needing lung transplants could increase due to COVID-19.

"Long Island is a geographically huge location with many million people," said Dr. Zachary Kon, surgical director of advanced lung failure and lung transplantation services at Northwell. "To have zero transplant programs here and force people to drive for hours, many times on oxygen with their family to and from Manhattan, doesn’t make a lot of sense."

New Hyde Park-based Northwell is the fifth approved lung transplant program in New York, following ones at Mount Sinai Medical Center, NYU Langone Health and New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, as well as Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, according to United Network for Organ Sharing.

Only two states — Texas and California — have more than five transplant hospitals with lung programs, United Network for Organ Sharing said, and many states don’t have any.

Long Island's first transplant procedure was performed on Saturday, Northwell said. Citing privacy law, a Northwell spokesperson declined to provide details about the patient.

Last week, Northwell listed that initial patient with the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit organization that serves as the nation’s organ transplant system. The health system since has added two additional patients to that waiting list.

There are 1,065 people in the United States waiting for lung transplants, including 97 in New York, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which United Network for Organ Sharing runs through a contract with the federal government.

The network reported 2,524 lung transplant surgeries took place in 2021, including 173 in New York.

The number of people needing lung transplants could increase due to COVID-19, health care experts have said. A recent study from the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles showed 7% of lung transplants in the United States between Aug. 1, 2020, and Sept. 20, 2021, were performed to treat damage caused by COVID-19.

During the early waves of the pandemic, severely ill COVID-19 patients who developed breathing problems due to pneumonia or acute respiratory distress often were placed on ventilators. Many of the patients who recovered still suffered damage to their lungs.

Kon said he hopes the number of COVID-19 patients needing lung transplants will not increase.

"If I only do a handful more lung transplants on COVID patients, I think I’d be very happy," said Kon, who previously worked as surgical director of the lung transplantation program at NYU Langone. "I do think it will decline, hopefully, as vaccination rates increase and the severity of illness decreases as well in those vaccinated folks."

Having an additional lung transplant program closer to home for residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as Queens, is "critical," said Joy Oppedisano, president of the Long Island Transplant Recipients International Organization, a volunteer education and advocacy group.

"We have seen in the past that lung transplants are needed because of chronic conditions like COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], pulmonary fibrosis and cystic fibrosis," she said. "But what’s really happened now is that the coronavirus has increased the number of people waiting."

Lung transplants can be one of the most challenging surgeries to perform, Kon said. Northwell hired doctors, nurses and other staffers for the transplant program.

"I think the pre- and postoperative care of these patients is just incredibly resource-intensive, time-intensive and really takes a huge group of people with a very, very narrow area of expertise," Kon said. "Lung failure is just one of these very complex disease processes that can be very difficult to manage."

The procedure can take from 6 to 10 hours to complete. Recovery time can vary by patient, but generally it involves time in the intensive care unit, followed by a stay in a hospital room for another one to three weeks, according to the National Institutes for Health. That is followed by several months of close monitoring at home to keep an eye out for rejection of the donated organ and other complications. Regular check-ins with a patient's transplant team and rehabilitative therapy are also vital to recovery.

While there are some living donors who can donate lobes of their lungs to others, the vast majority of lungs that are transplanted come from donors who are deceased. And only about 28% of donor lungs are healthy enough and meet the criteria to be used in transplants, according to the American Lung Association.

There are some medical innovations being used to help restore donor lungs, which experts hope will expand the pool of those organs in the future.

"A donor mom once told me that lungs are like angel wings, they are so delicate," Oppedisano said. "I thought that was so beautiful."

She said there is reason to be hopeful because survival rates have been increasing.

"That’s another interesting thing with transplantation," Oppedisano said. "Every year great strides are made."

Northwell already has liver, kidney and heart transplant programs on Long Island.

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