WESTFIELD, Ind. — After months in a coma, Kari Wegg woke up last fall and was told "COVID killed your lungs."
Today, her recovery is one of the most extreme coronavirus survivor cases in the country.
When the 48-year-old left her Westfield home to go to the emergency room in July 2020, she never dreamed it would be spring 2021 before she would be back.
“Totally life-changing," Wegg said. "I would have never imagined that I'd be going through something like this."
Kari and her husband, Rodney, both tested positive for the coronavirus last summer. However, while he recovered, his wife declined rapidly.
She slipped into a coma, and machines in the intensive care unit kept her alive for months.
“I woke up with tubes and in every orifice. I was on a ventilator," Wegg said. "I couldn't talk because I had a trach. I could only mouth words. I knew something had gone terribly wrong because I could see outside my window that the trees were yellow, and I knew it was Fall. I knew a long time, it passed, and it was a shock."
Rodney, a respiratory therapist, knew the outlook was dire.
“The logical thing is to stop all the machines from keeping her alive,” he said.
But love defies logic, and Rodney had hope.
He had heard doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago performed the nation's first double lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient. He talked with the medical staff at Ascension St. Vincent and they contacted the transplant team at Northwestern. Ultimately, they accepted Kari's case and they went to Chicago.
“It was a roller coaster,” he recalls.
WTHR first talked to the Weggs after she received a donated pair of lungs. They knew they took a dramatic course, but it was the only option to survive.
“It was either get a double lung transplant or it was death,” Kari said.
To date, the Northwestern team has treated 17 patients like Kari.
Nationally, her double lung transplant after COVID is one of nearly 50 cases at multiple centers in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, California and Illinois. For every one of these patients, the recovery is very difficult. They have to learn to breathe with new lungs.
“The recovery has been pretty rough,” Kari said while still at Northwestern.
But she worked hard in therapy and was motivated to return home to her teenage boys, Gavin and Gunnar. They were back in Indiana, staying with their grandmother.
The family marked Thanksgiving and Christmas in Chicago as rehabilitation continued.
Now that Kari is finally back home, her new goal is to return to work again as a NICU nurse.
“It was central to me, my being, taking care of the babies and loving on them and helping their families with education and getting them home. It was just such a part of who I was. And hopefully, who I will be again,” Kari said.
But for now, Kari understands she is the primary patient requiring her care and attention. She has 25 daily medications to help her fight infection and rejection.
It's scary, and Kari has many questions.
“What if my lungs fail? What if I need a new transplant? Will I get it? Will my body be able to withstand it? And will it affect my family? Right now, our whole life has been affected and all revolves around my transplant and me not being up to the same level I was before,” Kari said.
She is often short of breath and lacks stamina, but Kari is alive and getting better.
“[The doctor] told us that the transplant was, hands down, the most difficult surgery there is. And for me to be lucky enough to get a new set of lungs, and such a talented surgeon doing it, I'm really grateful,” Kari said.
Doctors tell Kari to be patient. They expect her lungs will be fully functioning nine to 12 months after surgery.
Right now, the family is investing in a new filtration system to purify the air at their Westfield home. A family friend set up a GoFundMe account to help support the Weggs.