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CHICAGO — He’s an emergency room doctor. She’s a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit. Both worked on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis – then became patients themselves.

But the infection took a catastrophic turn, leaving the fate of the two devoted caregivers in the hands of organ donors and transplant doctors in Chicago.

As a neonatal intensive care unit nurse, Kari Wegg has spent the last 25 years caring for sick babies. 

“There was always a possibility we are exposed to COVID,” she said. “It’s less likely that children and babies get COVID and get sick, but always the possibility. … We were having to take extra precautions. Some of the moms did have COVID.” 

When she started to feel sick in July, she was quickly admitted to an ICU in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband and two boys Gavin and Gunnar.

“I was tired. I couldn’t breathe quite as well, and I was short of breath,” she said. “And it was becoming worse and worse.”

Not long after, she was sedated and placed on a ventilator then ECMO life support, the machine doing the work of her heart and lungs for 12 weeks.

“All those months were gone and missing,” she said.

As the 48-year-old with no co-morbidities deteriorated, her husband Rodney fought for her life.  He advocated for Wegg’s transfer to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the opportunity for a lung transplant.

“They told me my only two choices were death or a lung transplant,” Wegg said. “My husband had advocated for me. If it weren’t for him I’d be dead right now. … He did not let me go.”

Dr Samuel Kim is a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine.

“These patients are the sickest of the sickest,” Kim said. “Their body is barely holding onto life by the time we are seeing these patients.”

Kim helped perform Wegg’s transplant on October 2, just days after operating on another healthcare worker, Dr Andrew Lawrence, an emergency room physician from Texas.

“I would see probably 10 to 15 patients per day who are potential COVID patients,” Lawrence said. “And as it got worse. Almost 90 percent of the patients I see would be COVID exposed .”

But by mid-July, Lawrence became a patient himself after experiencing shortness of breath and fever. 

“On the 22nd I got so sick they had to drag me into the ER and I was admitted to ICU,” he said.

His condition quickly declined, and the 54-year-old was ultimately transferred all the way to Northwestern, where he received a double lung transplant in late September. 

“The tissue plane to remove the lung gets very challenging due to all the infections inflammation,” Kim said. “And certainly all our life, we’ve never seen anything like this, even on the most challenging lung transplant we’ve done prior to this.”  

For Kim, caring for the two frontline healthcare workers has been deeply personal. 

“These are the true heroes risking their lives every day got to work so they can take care of the patient in this pandemic,” Kim said. “For a brief moment, I think that could be me.”

Now, after months in the hospital, both Wegg and Lawrence are gaining back strength and starting to walk again.

“I’m very happy. I’m very grateful,” Lawrence said.

“You don’t know how precious life and breathing is until you don’t have it,” Wegg said. “And now it’s even more precious than ever.”

Kim and the team at Northwestern have performed seven double lung transplants in patients who experienced a catastrophic COVID cascade. He said it takes a herculean effort to save these patients.