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Indianapolis NICU nurse thankful to be alive after COVID-19 battle led to double lung transplant

Kari Wegg went into a coma with COVID-19 this summer and woke up this fall to learn she would need a double lung transplant to survive.

INDIANAPOLIS — Editor's Note: This story includes medical images that might be too graphic for some.

This Thanksgiving is especially meaningful for a local NICU nurse who went into a coma with COVID-19 this summer and woke up this fall to learn the shocking news that she would need the extreme measure of a double lung transplant to survive.

"I think I was so surprised and shocked that this had happened to me," Kari Wegg said. "Never in my life would have woke up after missing a whole summer, thinking that I would have a lung transplant."

Wegg is 48, a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Ascension St. Vincent Women's Hospital since 2008.

"Taking care of the sickest patients, the sickest little babies in the state," Wegg said.

Credit: Wegg family

But back in June, Wegg became one of the sickest adults.

"My husband had a positive COVID test. I also had a positive COVID test," Wegg said.

Her case was more severe. She was admitted to the ICU at St. Vincent where the medical team kept her alive with the help of a heart-lung bypass machine called ECMO.

She was sedated and nonresponsive.

"The next thing I knew, I went from July to the end of September. And let me tell you, it was a trip missing the whole summer, waking up with a month missing," Wegg said.

Her husband Rodney, a respiratory therapist, knew the outlook was dire.

"I woke up, asked my husband, 'What happened?' and he told me, 'COVID killed your lungs,'" Wegg said.

Rodney quickly conveyed that her options were limited.

"It was either get a double lung transplant, or it was death," Wegg said.

Credit: Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Kari Wegg at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in her battle with COVID-19.

Fortunately, she was referred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where a medical team led by surgeon Dr. Ankit Bharat was the first in the country to perform a double lung transplant for a COVID-19 patient.

The medical staff remembers her body breaking down upon arrival in September as she hoped to become the sixth COVID-19 patient receiving two new lungs.

"She was in terrible shape," said Dr. Sam Kim, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern.

Dr. Kim said the COVID-19 transplant patients are developing respiratory distress syndrome, where the lungs stiffen and harden — very different from the spongy nature of healthy lungs. A donor match led to Wegg receiving healthy organs during a double lung transplant surgery on Oct. 2.

"They were extremely pleased. He said my match was near perfect," Wegg said.

Credit: Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Kari Wegg's lungs were destroyed during her battle with COVID-19.

The recovery will take time and Wegg said she is trying to breathe like she used to before COVID-19.

"The recovery has been pretty rough," Wegg said. "I'm often short of breath. My new lungs are still learning how to work with my body."

Rodney has spent the last month commuting back between the family home in Westfield to care for their teenage sons and staying by his wife's bedside. 

Credit: Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Kari Wegg with her husband Rodney after her double lung transplant.

He's seen patients battle back from a lung transplant and is confident she will too.

"You just got to get through all this. This is like four months of your life. This is a tiny little block," Rodney said. "Twenty years from now you'll look back on this as just some crazy nightmare in this crazy time in your life."

Dr. Kim said Wegg is the second frontline medical worker to receive a double lung transplant at Northwestern, and staffers take her case personally.

"This is something that will be with me for the rest of my life," Kim said. "To see her walking and moving without any oxygen, able to function (and) communicate, it's almost like the night and day. And it's just remarkable how she was able to recover and beat this."

Over the summer, Kari missed her anniversary, birthdays and seeing her 14- and 13-year-old sons in person.

"Gavin and Gunnar. Those poor boys miss their mom so much. They haven't been able to visit because kids are not able to visit in most hospitals, and I'm able to FaceTime them, but I'm not able to see them physically, and that's been hard on all of us," Wegg said.

Credit: Wegg family
Kari Wegg with her husband and sons.

New visiting restrictions in Chicago are delaying a face-to-face family reunion until Wegg is released from rehab in mid-December. She can't wait.

"My prognosis right now, as long as I do everything I'm supposed to do, is excellent," Wegg said.

In the meantime, a relative set up a GoFundMe account to support the Wegg family.

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