Rudy Lucero, 55, recovers from double lung transplant surgery in an apartment in Aurora, Colorado. The surgery became necessary after a COVID infection last year seriously scarred his lungs, impeding his ability to breathe. (Courtesy Deborah Lucero)

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Rudy Lucero believes in miracles. He sees one each time he looks in the mirror.

The Albuquerque resident is recovering in a Colorado hospital after having a May 2 double lung transplant, made necessary after a COVID infection scarred his lungs and made breathing nearly impossible.

He expects that he and his wife, Deborah, will have to remain in Colorado another 2-3 months as he continues to get stronger and more independent.

Colorado is a good place to be, considering where Rudy was heading.

“I’m really close to the way I felt before I got sick, but I’ve lost a lot of weight and my muscles are weak,” Rudy said. “I’ve been going to pulmonary rehab, just trying to get stronger.”

All he knows of his organ donor is that the lungs came from a 33-year-old male. The hospital, he said, would not release any additional information.

On New Year’s Day, 2021, Rudy and his then longtime girlfriend, Deborah Ortiz, both tested positive for COVID. Vaccines had just started to become available and the couple did not yet have access to them. Over the next five days, as Deborah got better, Rudy, who also has diabetes, experienced a profound deterioration in his ability to breathe. He wound up being rushed by ambulance to a hospital.

Rudy, 55, and Deborah, 53, had each been married before. They had known one another for more than 15 years and had plans to get married and have a honeymoon in Hawaii. Rudy had even traveled to Los Angeles to purchase a zoot suit for the occasion.

COVID put the kibosh on that.

As Rudy lingered in a bed at Lovelace Medical Center, he realized he faced an uncertain future and suggested that he and Deborah get married right away. So on Feb. 7, 2021, Super Bowl Sunday, they exchanged vows – Rudy still in his hospital bed, and Deborah in the parking lot below, holding a cellphone with an audio-video connection and surrounded by about 100 mask-wearing friends and a procession of classic cars.

Rudy Lucero leaves Lovelace Medical Center in June 2021, accompanied by his wife, Deborah, left. Lucero had been hospitalized going on six months because of COVID. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

On June 23, closing in on a six-month hospitalization, Deborah was finally able to take Rudy home, but life was not easy for him. Rudy, who owned a plumbing company for 30 years, had to sell his business. Deborah, formerly a cosmetologist, became Rudy’s primary caregiver. More than 70% of his lungs were scarred, causing a permanent condition called pulmonary fibrosis, which would require him to be on oxygen for the rest of his life, his doctors informed him.

In October, Rudy experienced another setback. He was hospitalized with pulmonary hypertension, which causes the heart to work at a dangerously high rate to pump blood through the lungs. It was at that point, Deborah said, “that we started talking about a double lung transplant,” a discussion they had hoped to put off as long as possible.

In March, the couple went to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora, which has a lung transplant program. With his oxygen levels still falling, Rudy was placed on the transplant list and eight pairs of donor lungs were considered before an acceptable pair was located. The surgery took more than eight hours, Rudy said.

“There’s a small window where someone can be not yet sick enough to have the transplant, but then there’s also a line where a person can be too sick to have the transplant,” Deborah said. “Rudy was close to being too sick.”

When he finally awoke 24 hours after the surgery, it was a revelation, Rudy said. “I was breathing normal. It was crazy. The way I was living before, there was no quality of life. I couldn’t get up and go to the bathroom without gasping for air, so this was amazing. I’m still on a little bit of oxygen, but eventually I won’t need it at all.”

He will, however, have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life, an assortment of 15 to 20 pills daily.

“It’s not a possibility of rejection, he will definitely have rejection at one point or another, if not multiple times,” Deborah said. “But as long as we keep on top of it, and when we see signs – a common cold, fatigue, fever – we can let the doctors know immediately and they can test him quickly and give him antibiotics or whatever he’s going to need. But it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Rudy and Deborah Lucero visit the Mother Cabrini Shrine in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, west of Aurora, Colorado, on Sunday, their first outing since Rudy’s double lung transplant surgery. (Courtesy Deborah Lucero)

For the next couple of months or so, the couple is living close to the medical center in housing subsidized by Brent’s Place, a nonprofit that helps people like the Luceros. Rudy goes to pulmonary rehab three times a week and visits his doctor once a week.

Deborah, in the meantime, is planning their return to Albuquerque and the more elaborate wedding that they missed out on earlier, including the procession of classic cars adorned with a thousand tissue paper flowers that have been waiting in storage.

“We had a really, really rough year and a half, and if it has anything to do with the marriage vows about ‘in sickness and in health,’ well, we’ve already done the sickness part, so it’s time to do the healthy part and be happy,” Deborah said.

Rudy knows how lucky he is to have survived the medical crisis. “I would never have made it without Deborah,” he said.

And every day he gets up and looks in the mirror he recognizes that his second chance at life “is nothing short of a miracle.”

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