(WSVN) - South Florida is leading the way in the fight against one of the most fatal effects of the coronavirus: severe lung damage. As 7’s Karen Hensel reports, the treatment is giving patients a “Breath of Hope.”

It has been seven months since Alberto Diaz was in the fight for his life.

Alberto Diaz: “I collapsed in the door of the hospital.”

Alberto went to the emergency room at Mount Sinai Medical center on July 3.

He had coronavirus and spent the next month in the ICU.

Alberto Diaz: “I could not move in the bed because if I moved in the bed, the oxygen would go down.”

Dr. Seth Gottlieb, Mount Sinai Medical Center: “He was very bad. His oxygen levels were low, and without the supplemental oxygen that we had, as much as we could push it through his nose and around his face, he would not have survived. He was very bad.”

Dr. Seth Gottlieb showed us two sets of X-rays.

The dark lungs on the right are normal.

Alberto’s lungs are on the left. The white cloudiness shows the damage left by COVID.

Dr. Seth Gottlieb: “We have fluid and proteins and perhaps blood that have filled the airways and fill the air sacs, and that’s why you had this haziness in the lungs.”

It took two months in the hospital for Alberto to beat COVID, but the virus left him with severe scarring in his lungs.

Dr. Seth Gottlieb: “Once you get to that point where the lungs are scarred, many times it doesn’t go away. It can leave you with permanent deficits.”

Alberto never smoked and despite being diabetic, was generally in good health, but to this day, he still needs oxygen.

Alberto Diaz: “My lung is enough to sit down here and talk to you, but if I walk back to the street I begin to…”

Alberto is not the only patient struggling. Doctors from across South Florida are treating COVID patients suffering from COVID’s long lasting effects.

Dr. Jose Suarez, Westchester General Hospital: “So, they’re recovering from the disease, and they still have findings for weeks, for months, so we called those post-COVID syndrome and long haulers.”

Dr. Jose Suarez of Westchester Hospital says long hauler patients can experience everything from hair loss to the worst symptom: lung problems.

Dr. Jose Suarez: “It looks actually worse than smoker’s lungs on some patients. It has to do with the scarring that they are developing, and it’s not just the lungs, but we’re finding it in other organs — kidneys, livers.”

But there is hope. Westchester is among a few hospitals around the world studying a new drug.

Dr. Jose Suarez: “So we’re doing a trial with Algernon, a medication called Ifenprodil, which has been around since the ’70s, and we’re starting to use it on COVID patients, and it’s a potent anti-inflammatory.”

It’s hoped the drug will reduce the scarring of lung tissue which has led to so many long term problems.

Right now, it’s only being used on critically ill patients, and Dr. Suarez says the results are looking good.

Dr. Jose Suarez: “These patients are not getting that scarring that we usually see with the COVID patients, and their reactions to the treatment is phenomenal.”

Dr. Suarez says 10 patients who have received the drug have recovered from COVID without the scarring, and he believes studies like this one provide hope for future COVID patients.

Dr. Jose Suarez: “I do see hope. I am so happy that we now have the vaccine. I am seeing a lot of great, cutting edge medications that are about to come out into the market, which is going to be great.”

Unfortunately, this drug won’t work for Alberto, but he still sees every day as a reason to celebrate.

He says he will continue to fight because from the moment he walked into the hospital, he knew he would win against COVID.

Alberto Diaz: “I never had in my mind that I would have lost my life there. Never. I see a lot of people pass by there, you know?”

Karen Hensel: “That didn’t make it?”

Alberto Diaz: “That didn’t make it. I’m telling you the truth.”

And for him, every breath he takes is a breath of hope for a long life with his family and a full recovery.

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