24-Year-Old Needed Double Lung and Kidney Transplants After 'Fighting for His Life' with COVID

Despite having no preexisting conditions, the father of three was so sick that doctors thought “he would not make it”

Colby Vondenstein and family
Colby Vondenstein and family. Photo: gofundme

At 24 years old and with no preexisting conditions, Colby Vondenstein should have been at low-risk for a severe case of COVID-19. But after contracting the virus, like so many Americans this year, at a family Christmas celebration, the father of three ended up spending months in the hospital on life support and needed a double lung transplant and a kidney transplant to survive.

Vondenstein, his wife, Tori, and their three kids celebrated Christmas with his extended family. A few days later, Colby "started feeling bad," he told Fox9, and took some medicine, thinking it was just "a common cold." But soon, other family members felt similar symptoms coming on and all the adults at the holiday celebration tested positive for COVID-19, including Tori, 28, and one of their three kids.

At first, Colby was able to manage his symptoms at their home in Crosby, Texas, and they expected to just "let [the virus] take its course," Tori told Today. But while she recovered quickly, Colby continued to deteriorate to the point where he couldn't get up to go to the bathroom, and on Jan. 5 they had to call an ambulance to take him to the local hospital, where he was "fighting for his life," she said.

Colby Vondenstein and family
Colby Vondenstein and family at Christmas. gofundme

"They were giving him steroids to try to help the lungs, but they couldn't do a whole lot because the kidneys were failing," she said. "They stated that...that he would not make it."

Colby developed pneumonia, his lungs collapsed and his kidneys failed. He started getting dialysis for his kidneys and was put on a ventilator. But with such a severe case, Colby needed more help and was transferred to Houston Methodist Hospital on Jan. 11.

"I didn't really get scared until I woke up, and they had all these tubes in me, and I didn't know what was going on," he told Today.

Tori told Fox9 that seeing him hooked up to all the machines was "pretty unbearable."

"It was tough to watch my best friend, the love of my life, fighting for his life."

Dr. Howard Huang, Colby's pulmonologist at Houston Methodist, said that his severe COVID-19 illness was a "head scratcher" considering he did not have preexisting conditions, and they had to give him a "particularly aggressive" course of treatment.

"He came in and was already in renal failure, was already having severe respiratory distress, progressed very quickly to need mechanical ventilation," Huang told Today.

They put him on an ECMO, a life support machine, to keep his lungs and heart going.

"He became entirely dependent on ECMO and initially required very heavy sedation," Huang added. "The issue then became you have a person who's now stuck on the ECMO machine with no really viable solution to come off."

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After two months on the ECMO, Huang started looking at getting Colby on the transplant list for a new set of lungs and a new kidney, because "he really didn't have that much more time on these devices." And with his younger age, "he had a reasonable chance to be able to get through this."

But it took time to find a donor, and the doctors and nurses "were still doing everything they could to keep him alive," Tori said. "On Feb. 27, I came in that morning, and the physician stopped me in the hall and just said it's getting harder and harder and we're running out of time, like days."

"To watch him go through this and to watch him literally fighting to live, I can't even describe it," she said. "It's the worst pain I think I've ever felt. I can just describe it as watching somebody be tortured."

That night, they found a donor and Colby had a double lung transplant and a kidney transplant the next day.

Colby is now recovering in the hospital, and four weeks after the surgery he was able to take his first steps again, an "enormously gratifying" moment for Huang, who said that Colby is well ahead of the typical recovery time.

The family, who is raising money for his medical bills on GoFundMe, expects him to spend two more weeks in the hospital before he can finally go home and see his kids for the first time in months. They also want younger, healthier people to understand that they, too, can be seriously affected by COVID-19.

"Even if you get sick, be more cautious of your signs and symptoms, know when to get help or seek physicians," Tori said. "You don't realize it until it happens to someone that you love how deadly the virus can be."

And Colby thanked his donor and their family for their "selflessness," adding that he doesn't "wish this on anybody."

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