The impacts of COVID-19 can be life-altering and lifelong for some patients. Doctors are seeing transplants needed in some cases. That's the case for Robert Domen.
"I do remember not breathing and then I remember breathing. It's a fantastic feeling," he said. "And you know, it's bittersweet, because you know that somebody loses a loved one to be a donor."
The Marine is just days home after a double lung transplant at University of Florida Health following a severe case of COVID-19.
Domen said last spring he tested positive and was admitted to a hospital in Georgia right away. Eventually he was moved to UF Health in Gainesville.
"It felt like one heck of a roller coaster that I had never been on before. Up down, up down, up down. Day in, day out," said Robert's wife, Deborah Domen. "Stress. New stress. Old stress. New stress on top of old stress. No sleep, worry, fear. What I'm seeing in front of my eyes, my husband, the man I love the most in the world."
They describe persistence in advocating for care, even when given a slim chance of survival.
They call the doctors and nurses their angels in getting them here.
Robert Domen's is one of 30 COVID lung transplants doctors at the hospital have performed for patients from around the country.
"Those are selected patients that were relatively healthy before, didn't have any contra-indications, a lot of complexity that came with a case we were able to work through," said Dr. Abbas Shahmohammadi.
He's the medical director of the thoracic and vascular ICU. He said it's a team effort taking care of complex cases, seeing lungs with extreme forms of damage.
"In a subset of population, a smaller percentage of the patients that become infected, they go into progressive respiratory failure and lung injury that at many times becomes irreversible, so I get to see that on a daily basis," he said.
They're helping patients as the virus continues spreading.
"In terms of the long-term effects and who will actually need a lung transplant, we have yet to see the numbers. I figure the numbers would be significant," Shahmohammadi said.
There are significant cases of COVID-19 across the country. University of Florida Health researchers look at the mortality risks in the year following severe illness. They studied the data from health records of more than 13,600 patients who received a COVID-19 PCR test.
"The risk of people who were hospitalized with COVID, severe COVID, the risk of dying was increased by 233%, so that's pretty big numbers," said Arch Mainous, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Medicine.
It followed previous findings that patients who had severe cases were more than twice as likely to land in the hospital again with COVID-19 complications.
"I think it emphasizes that we need to focus on prevention of hospitalizations. What we found, people who had mild COVID weren't really any different than people who were negative," said Mainous.
The impact can still be life-altering.
"Well I survived, but they don't look at that other 1% of the survival, at what cost?" said Courtney Kohler.
Newsy first met Kohler in the Pittsburgh area as she looked ahead to needing a new kidney following a case of COVID-19 prior to vaccine availability. At that time she was on dialysis. This month she received a new kidney.
It means a whole new life compared to what I thought we were going to be going through with dialysis, and yet, you know, the whole new life of just restrictions as far as medically — I'll be on pills for the rest of my life," she said.
The living donor was her sister-in-law, Rebecca Dillon.
"To me there was never really a decision to make. I knew from the get-go when we knew she needed a new kidney I would try to do that for her," said Dillon.
"Just thankful to get a second chance," said Kohler, while underscoring the importance of vaccinations.
As for the Domens, Robert is in the initial steps of recovery following more than half a year hospitalized.
"Don't become complacent. It can happen to anybody, anywhere at any time," said Robert.
"Hold on to your faith, faith is a real thing, if you have faith," said Deborah.
Robert plans to get back to his active lifestyle. His goal is to run a 5K in the not-too-distant future.
"It's probably the Marine in me that won't take no for an answer," he said.