Jake Immink got sick with COVID-19 around Halloween, but he didn't think much about it.
“I had a fever and a cough but no trouble breathing," said the 31-year-old cattle rancher from Fairbury.
But Immink was a lot sicker than he realized.
"My mom noticed I wasn’t acting like myself and decided to measure my blood-oxygen levels."
The readings came back about 80%, well below the normal range of 95-100%. So his mom drove him to a hospital in Lincoln on Nov. 3.
Immink said the doctor who did his CT scan told him his lungs were the worst she had ever seen.
"That scared me a lot," he said.
Immink was one of eight family members who got COVID-19. His mom, dad and brother all wound up in the hospital.
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But they recovered and went home within a week or two.
That wasn't the case for Immink. His condition deteriorated, and he wound up in the intensive care unit at Bryan West Campus.
He initially improved and was moved to a lower level of care, but by the middle of the month, he took a turn and was put on a ventilator.
“I first saw Jake in November, and by January he was still on the ventilator,” said Dr. Bill Johnson, a pulmonologist with Nebraska Pulmonary Specialties in Lincoln.
Even though many of Immink's COVID-19 symptoms resolved, the disease ravaged his lungs, and he could not breathe on his own.
Johnson said by that point, Immink was considered to have end-stage lung disease, and was likely headed for a nursing home, where he would spend the rest of his life on a ventilator.
Immink's only chance for a fairly normal life would be a lung transplant, so Johnson contacted Dr. Heather Strah, a transplant pulmonologist with Nebraska Medicine in Omaha.
“Jake’s case was incredibly unique,” Strah said. “He was both sick and well at the same time. He had recovered from all of his severe COVID symptoms but was left with chronic pulmonary fibrosis, which meant without a transplant, he would’ve been hospitalized on a ventilator for the rest of his life.”
Strah said that very few people who get as sick as Immink survive.
But he was a fighter, she said, which is why doctors thought he could be a good candidate for a lung transplant.
Nebraska Medicine has done nearly four dozen lung transplants since the program started in 2015, but they are usually done for people who have been struggling with chronic lung disease for years.
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Doing transplants for patients whose lungs are damaged by an acute illness is rare, although it's become more common because of COVID-19.
Strah said she's aware of about 40 that have been done since the start of the pandemic, but Immink's was the first in Nebraska.
Before he could qualify for a transplant, however, he had to get healthier. That meant losing weight and building up strength.
Despite being tethered to a ventilator, Immink walked the halls of the hospital and did physical therapy exercises. He also went on a keto diet to shed pounds.
He met all the benchmarks he needed to and received a double-lung transplant March 20.
The surgery, led by Dr. Aleem Siddique, was a success, and his recovery has exceeded expectations.
"Every single day post-surgery, I feel better," Immink said. "I can breathe normally. I can breathe deeply. It's just incredible how great I feel."
On Wednesday, he put his new lungs to the test, walking a mile and a half.
If things keep progressing as well and he doesn't have any setbacks, he could be discharged from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility as early as next week.
Immink will have to stay in Omaha for rehabilitation but could get back to his family's ranch in three months.
"I just want to get back to life," he said.
He'll face some limitations for a while, but Strah said he can mostly get back to his normal routine.
"I fully expect him to be herding cattle this summer," she said.
Immink said he wants to be a cautionary tale to people who may not think COVID-19 is a big deal, and he encouraged everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
"I just hope everyone takes it serious and we can get back to a normal life," he said.
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