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UNMC performs state’s first double lung transplant in COVID-19 patient

Published: Apr. 1, 2021 at 10:14 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 10:21 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - At 31-years-old, Jake Immink became the first Nebraskan to receive a double lung transplant as a result of COVID-19.

He’s now recovering and breathing without a ventilator for the first time in over 120 days.

With nurses by his side, Immink takes daily walks in the halls of UNMC to build up strength in his new lungs.

“Every single day post-surgery I feel better than I did since October 28th, the day before I got symptoms,” Immink said. “I can breathe normally, I can breathe deep, it’s just incredible how great I feel.”

Immink was first hospitalized with COVID-19 at Bryan Health in November 2020.

His symptoms started at the end of October, and his family members checked his oxygen levels. A move that likely saved his life.

He originally entered the COVID-19 unit on a BiPAP just to get oxygen but was later moved to the ICU on a ventilator.

Throughout his time at Bryan, he was in the care of pulmonologist Dr. Bill Johnson and his team.

By January of 2021, Immink was still on a ventilator.

“I felt that it was time to talk about the concept of a transplant,” Dr. Johnson said. “Because he had gotten through the inflammatory part of COVID but he was then left with end-stage lung disease.”

During a press conference Thursday, Immink said he was initially against the idea of a double-lung transplant, something he’s not even sure he told his doctors.

“I didn’t wanna have a big scary operation,” Immink said. “I think I asked him (Dr. Johnson) what would be the best-case scenario and likely scenario. He said best was nasal oxygen wheeling around a bottle and likely would be being on a vent the rest of my life and that’s when I changed my tune about transplant.”

Dr. Johnson then reached out to Dr. Heather Strah, a transplant pulmonologist at Nebraska Medicine, to talk about the possibility of a transplant.

Many COVID-19 patients who get as sick as Immink do not survive and the teams of doctors determined he would be a good candidate for that transplant.

Dr. Strah shared that she only knows of about 40 other double lung transplants as part of COVID-19 treatments in the nation.

“He needed to lose a little bit of weight and he needed to be in better physical condition,” Dr. Strah said. “He was walking with six to eight people around him at all times while on the ventilator on 100% oxygen with low oxygen saturation because he was not willing to give up.”

That procedure took place in March at UNMC and while it was incredibly successful, it’s likely not a possibility for most patients affected by the pandemic.

Immink is now on the road to being back on the ranch herding cattle - his passion and livelihood before his illness.

“I just wanna thank the donor and their family for giving me the gift of life again,” Immink said.

Immink isn’t sure when he will be released from the hospital but UNMC said it could be within the week.

From there he will stay in Omaha to do outpatient therapy for the next three months.

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