24-Year-Old Survives Coronavirus 4 Years After Double Lung Transplant: 'Ignorance Puts Us at Risk'

PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during the pandemic

Nick Hunter
Nicholas Hunter. Photo: courtesy Nicholas Hunter

Nicholas Hunter was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes mucus buildup in the lungs. For close to 20 years, he suffered from breathing difficulties, infections and other health issues. In 2016, Hunter underwent a double lung transplant, which he said put him in the "best shape of my life." But four years later, the Kent State University graduate, 24, hit another health setback: this time, by contracting COVID-19. Due to his underlying condition, Hunter's case quickly became severe and he was hospitalized at Cleveland Clinic Akron General. After a week in the ICU, Hunter inexplicably started to recover and he was discharged from the hospital two days later. This is his story, as told to PEOPLE.

I spent 12 days in the hospital — seven of which were on a ventilator — but what's so crazy about what I went through is that I don't remember the worst part of having COVID-19. I didn't experience how hard it is on your body. I slept through all it and woke up feeling more fatigued from the anesthesia than I did having COVID.

My story is miraculous. Most people — even young, energetic, healthy people who take incredible care of themselves — die from COVID and I didn't, but that doesn't mean that I couldn't have.

Before the stay-at-home orders were issued in mid-March, my brother came over to visit. He was fine until the next day. Then slowly, his wife and all of his in-laws started feeling sick.

Knowing that he was with me the day before everyone started feeling symptoms, it gave me a really bad feeling. By the end of that week, I also had a cough, drippy nose and was feeling fatigued.

I called the Ohio Department of Health to let them know, but because I wasn't running a fever at the time, they told me to hold off coming in. A week later, I had gripping pain in my hips that I'd never had before and it kept getting worse, so I called the ER and they said, "Come on in."

Nick Hunter
Nick Hunter and his mom at Cleveland Clinic in 2015. courtesy Nicholas Hunter

I had a friend drop me off that night and told him I would call when I was done, but I never called him back because I was immediately admitted after finding out I had pneumonia caused by COVID. I remember calling my mom and girlfriend afterward, crying, not knowing what's going to happen or what to do. I was terrified.

The next day, I decided to take a midday nap because there's not much else to do while you're in the hospital. I woke up seven days later in the ICU.

Apparently, while I had fallen asleep, my oxygen level had dipped dangerously low and they made the call to intubate me and put me on a ventilator. I had no opportunity to let my family know, but they managed to tell my mom hours later. I don't remember any of it.

When I finally woke up a week later, it was 3 a.m. I was still very groggy. The ICU was pitch black and a nurse, who was just leaving the room, told me where I was. Then she left.

For two hours, I sat there alone trying to figure out what had happened. I didn't know what day it was, I didn't have my cellphone with me and I went from feeling confused to terrified and lonely, wishing I had any memory of the last week.

Nick Hunter
Nick Hunter with his girlfriend and family. courtesy Nicholas Hunter

When the morning rolled around, I learned that I pulled the breathing tube out while they were bringing me off the anesthesia. They were monitoring me and decided that I was breathing well enough to leave me off of it, which is incredibly surprising after going under with COVID.

Once I came off the ventilator, I bounced back super quick. That afternoon, I was on my feet and standing up to use the bathroom. They moved me out of the ICU after one day and the next, they sent me home.

Within a week of returning home, I pretty much fell back to where I was before, and haven't had any complications, other than some minimal scarring on my lungs, a common residual effect.

Emotionally and mentally, on the other hand, it's been very difficult. It's disheartening that there are people who have reached out to me, telling me how happy they are to hear I'm okay and how scared they were, but the next day, they're sharing a meme about how wearing masks is taking away their personal rights.

Watching people say whatever they feel like saying is intensely frustrating because ignorance about this puts me at risk, it puts other people like me at risk, and it puts themselves at risk.

There are moments where I feel hopeless. I trust the people around me to take the necessary precautions, but it's not just about me. There are so many people who are sick or who have died because this isn't being taken seriously enough, and that breaks my heart.

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I hope those who are stubborn about wearing masks will understand that my family and I went through this terrible, traumatic time because of COVID, even though I took all the precautions I needed to do.

As someone with cystic fibrosis and a transplantee, I'd wear masks in public, I'd wash my hands like a crazy person and I'd keep a distance from everyone any time I'd go to a doctor's office. I've always taken precautions because my immune system is very compromised, but this just spread like wildfire.

There is the potential for people to recover, even someone who's got all these things against them, but also understand that's not always the case.

My goal has always been to make a positive change in the world. I don't know what it will take for people to take this seriously, but if I'm going to survive a double lung transplant and go through one of the worst viruses this country has ever seen and come out fine, relatively speaking, then I want to use that as an opportunity to help others.

I don't ever want anyone to have to go through what I've gone through. Nobody deserves that.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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