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'It hit me so hard': Utah ICU nurse battling COVID-19 released from hospital after double lung transplant

By Lauren Bennett, KSL.com | Posted - Feb. 25, 2021 at 7:31 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — After spending months in the hospital sick with COVID-19 and eventually undergoing a double lung transplant, a Utah intensive care nurse has finally been discharged.

Jill Holker worked on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic caring for COVID-19 patients for months before she became a patient herself. The Utah Valley Hospital nurse was admitted to a Utah hospital in November and later transferred to a Florida hospital to work with a team that specializes in lung care.

Just one month after a double lung transplant surgery, Holker was able to walk out of the hospital surrounded by applauding hospital staff. Unlike when she arrived, she left able to breathe on her own.

Holker first started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 around Halloween. After struggling to breathe for a few days, her daughter made her go to the emergency room. She was later admitted and treated by her own coworkers at Utah Valley's intensive care unit, where her condition continued to worsen.

"You never think that you're going to take care of one of your own, especially with the virus," Holker said in a University of Florida Health interview.

Holker is an active woman who didn't have any underlying health issues prior to contracting COVID-19.

"I was surprised that it hit me so hard," she said.

At one point, Holker was fighting for her life while in the intensive care unit.

"Her lungs are just at a point now that they aren't really going to bounce back," Holly Pike, a nurse at Utah Valley Hospital and friend of Holker, explained in a December interview with KSL. "They aren't really going to recover."

Holker underwent her double lung transplant surgery on Jan. 20 and was released from the hospital on Feb. 19. Seeing how far Holker has come after being a patient in the intensive care unit has inspired those close to her.

"I think right then we were all just so relieved and so excited about this upcoming hope that she kind of got from these new lungs," Pike told KSL on Thursday. "And so since then, everything has just been positive news."

It will be a few more months until she can return to her home in Utah as Holker needs to stay with her team of specialists for follow-ups and physical therapy. A GoFundMe* has been set up to help cover medical costs.

"It'll just be nice to be home," Holker said.

Despite not being able to return home right away, Pike said Holker's attitude has been upbeat and positive.

"She is just such an exceptional human being who literally everyone who meets her loves, and that has been no exception in Florida," Pike said.

Being stuck in a hospital bed for months, on breathing assistance at times, and unable to speak didn't stop a dedicated Holker from pursuing her education; the recent nursing practitioner graduate has been studying for her bar exam, from her hospital bed.

Unfortunately, Holker hasn't been able to see her children yet, but Pike said they have plans to visit in Florida in the coming weeks and months. Prior to the transplant surgery, Holker's condition was improving but she still required significant oxygen support.

"She was doing as well as she could be in those circumstances," Pike said.

After watching Holker fight for so long, knowing the future is brighter brings Pike hope.

"I think we were all kind of at peace because we knew that this had been such a long road, and that this is exactly what needed to happen for her, and that everything is going to be OK, and the doctors that are just so wonderful and the staff is so amazing," she said.

Going from a health care provider caring for COVID-19 patients to becoming the COVID-19 patient helped Holker have a special appreciation for her medical team. She knew the staff was going above and beyond for her and had become fierce advocates for her care.

"Those are the kinds of little things that you can notice, and she definitely has mentioned little things like that that we, as a health care provider can all see that I think maybe a normal patient wouldn't be able to see," Pike said.

Even though the country has been in the pandemic for about one year, some still don't take the proper health precautions against the deadly virus, something that makes Pike feel sad — both as a nurse and as a friend of someone so badly impacted by the virus.

"I think it is sad that people are taking it so lightly," she said.

The changes that came along with the pandemic have definitely been difficult for everybody Pike said, but saving lives is crucial.

"For it to start to get better, like we've kind of gotten a little bit of a glimpse of that lately … we all have to abide by the rules and by the regulations, and we all need to wear our masks. And even if you think that you're not sick, you need to be kind and courteous," she said.

After undergoing a double lung transplant, Holker is now immunocompromised and becomes more vulnerable to the very virus that first made her sick, along with a myriad of other potential health complications.

"So somebody who thinks that they're not sick, wearing a mask protects somebody like Jill, or somebody who's elderly — and that's the whole point of wearing the masks, and that's the whole point of us trying to help our neighbor," Pike said. "And then I think with that and with vaccinations, once it started to roll out for everybody, we can really start to get to a better spot. And I think if everybody could just understand that, that it's really that simple."

After experiencing some of the worst COVID-19 can do, Holker hopes others start taking the virus seriously.

"It's frustrating for me when people still don't believe that the virus is a real thing and still refuse to just do the simple things to wear a mask, wash your hands, protect those around you; it's a long process I had to go through and I wouldn't wish it on anybody," Holker said.

Contributing: Ladd Egan, KSL TV

*KSL.com does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.

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