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In the year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, we've learned that the virus can affect individuals differently. While some people may only experience mild symptoms (or no symptoms at all) the virus has caused more than 2.8 million deaths worldwide.
In an interview with TODAY, Colby Vondenstein shared his experience with COVID-19 — which resulted in two organ transplants.
According to Vondenstein's wife, Tori, their nightmare began days after the couple and their three children celebrated Christmas with close family members in Texas. The 24-year-old tested positive for COVID-19 and began experiencing the traditional symptoms; fever, body aches, and a cough. But his fever resolved quite quickly — seemingly a positive indication of his recovery.
"You read about the symptoms, like, these are common symptoms," Tori told TODAY. "He wasn't really short of breath in the beginning."
Initially, their strategy was to "let [the virus] take its course" and wait for things to gradually improve. However, Vondenstein's symptoms began to worsen, and Tori decided it was time for a trip to the emergency room.
"Two days later, he was in Baytown Methodist Hospital fighting for his life," she recalled. "They were giving him steroids to try to help the lungs, but they couldn't do a whole lot because the kidneys were failing. They stated that he would not make it."
On Jan. 11, he was transferred to Houston Methodist hospital, where things took a particularly aggressive turn for the worse.
"I didn't really get scared until I woke up, and they had all these tubes in me, and I didn't know what was going on," Vondenstein said.
Dr. Howard Huang, a pulmonologist at Houston Methodist, told TODAY that when Vondenstein arrived at the hospital he was already in renal failure and experiencing "severe respiratory distress." Huang even described his condition as a "head-scratcher" and placed Vondenstein on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), often referred to as extracorporeal life support.
"He became entirely dependent on ECMO and initially required very heavy sedation," Huang told TODAY. "The issue then became you have a person who's now stuck on the ECMO machine with no real viable solution to come off."
Vondenstein remained in the hospital for two months, at which point Huang believed that neither his lung nor kidney function was going to improve, no matter what measures they took. His care team cut their losses and put him on the waiting list to have both organs replaced.
"This is obviously a very severe illness in a desperate situation," Huang explained. "We usually like to do transplant as more of a controlled process instead of under emergency conditions. He really didn't have that much more time on these devices. We felt he had a reasonable chance to be able to get through this. Transplant is done for COVID-19 in just a handful of cases. Worldwide there's probably fewer than 100 cases that have been done to date."
While Vondenstein and his family eagerly waited for matches, Tori recalled the nurses doing "everything they could" to keep her husband alive.
"On Feb. 27, I came in that morning, and the physician stopped me in the hall and just said it's getting harder and harder and we're running out of time, like days. To watch him go through this and to watch him literally fighting to live, I can't even describe it," she said. "It's the worst pain I think I've ever felt. I can just describe it as watching somebody be tortured."
Luckily, suitable matches were found for both a lung and kidney transplant, and Vondenstein underwent both surgeries on Feb. 28. After two months of falling in and out of consciousness and four weeks post-op, he was finally able to get up from his hospital bed and take a few steps.
"It's felt good to be able to get out and take some steps again," he told TODAY. "I honestly don't think (the doctors) thought I was going to recover this fast. They all looked shocked when they saw me do that."
Huang said Vondenstein is on an accelerated path to recovery and predicts that he will spend another couple of weeks in the hospital before being considered "out of the woods."
Vondenstein and his wife have chosen to share their story in an effort to raise awareness about the potential severity of COVID-19, and raise money that will go toward their medical bills. Tori urges young people to "just be more cautious."
"We don't go out to eat, we don't do all that. But even if you get sick, be more cautious of your signs and symptoms, know when to get help or seek physicians. You don't realize it until it happens to someone that you love how deadly the virus can be," she continued.
"I don't wish this on anybody," Vondenstein said. "It's definitely a hard one to go through what I'm going through."
A GoFundMe has been created to help the couple with medical expenses. The couple has raised more than $15,000 with nearly $50,000 to go until they reach their goal.