Nebraska Medicine performs state’s first COVID lung transplant

(Omaha, NE) -- A 31 year old rancher is the first Nebraskan to receive a lung transplant due to COVID-19.

Jake Immink's life went from performing daily work on his family’s cattle ranch near Fairbury, to having to need a lung transplant due to COVID-19. When Immink was diagnosed with the virus around Halloween, he had no idea the effect it would have on him and his family.

Immink’s brother, father and mother all tested positive and spent time in the hospital because of the virus. But it was Jake who was hit incredibly hard. He spent more than 120 days on a ventilator, first at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln and then at Nebraska Medical Center, where he was put on the list for a double lung transplant.

“I had no idea it was going to hit us this hard,” said Immink. “I had a fever and a cough but no trouble breathing. Then my mom noticed I wasn’t acting like myself and decided to measure my blood oxygen levels. They were low, so I was admitted to the hospital. I never imagined my condition would deteriorate so much I would need a lung transplant.”

Immink spent several months under the care of Nebraska Pulmonary Specialties providers at Bryan West Campus in Lincoln where he was placed on the ventilator. “I first saw Jake in November and by January he was still on the ventilator,” said Bill Johnson, MD, pulmonologist with Nebraska Pulmonary Specialties. “I didn’t think he was going to get any better so I called Nebraska Medicine transplant pulmonologist Dr. Heather Strah and we talked about the possibility of a transplant. We agreed finding the appropriate COVID patient for a lung transplant was like finding a needle in a haystack. But Jake was that needle.”

“Jake’s case was incredibly unique,” said Dr. Strah. “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.” Dr. Strah said most COVID patients who get as sick as Jake don’t survive. “The fact that he lived through the acute part of COVID is a testament to the care he got at Bryan and how strong he was. Dr. Johnson was sure that Jake would be a good transplant candidate and he called me to advocate for Jake.” she said.

In order to qualify for the transplant, Immink needed to gain strength and lose weight. He took both of those things as personal challenges. “I was going to do everything I possibly could to be eligible for the transplant,” said Immink. It was hard, especially being confined to a hospital room and hooked up to a ventilator, but I was determined to make it happen.”

“I’ve never had another patient like him,” said Dr. Strah. “The obstacles for him to reach his goal of being eligible for the transplant were immense. He had a tracheostomy and was on a ventilator but had to exercise and do PT and OT. He needed a team of six to eight people around him at all times to walk the halls and build his stamina.”

Jake finally received his double lung transplant in March, performed by a team led by transplant surgeon Aleem Siddique, MBBS. “We’d like to commend Mr. Immink, his family and all the health care providers involved in his care on the fantastic effort,” said Dr. Siddique. “This is a very unusual set of circumstances that has allowed him to receive a lung transplant for a COVID infection he suffered months ago. Unfortunately, lung transplant isn’t a possibility for most patients affected by the pandemic. While celebrating this success we also give a thought to the victims of the pandemic and the tremendous effort of all the myriad people involved in combating it.”

Dr. Strah says he’s doing much better than she ever expected. “I’m very much a hope-for-the-best, prepare-for-the-worst type person, and all of the worsts we prepared for didn’t happen,” said Dr. Strah. “This success is a combination of Jake’s strength, his family’s support, his medical teams and quite a bit of luck.”

If all continues to go well, Jake could leave the hospital as soon as next week. He’ll need to stay in Omaha to rehab for the next three months. “I can’t say enough good things about everyone at Nebraska Medicine,” said Immink. “They were amazing. Without them and the team that cared for me at Bryan, I wouldn’t be here today.”

(Photo by Nebraska Medicine)

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