Jill Holker’s life changed forever when the pandemic hit Utah County where she worked as an intensive care nurse for patients battling COVID-19.
Friday, she won her own battle.
An avid runner with a healthy lifestyle, Holker, a nurse at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, was never a concern for being a high-risk COVID-19 patient. As it turned out, her good habits didn’t stop the virus.
“Jill was in a condition that was the sickest of the sickest that you can see a patient,” said Andres Pelaze, a University of Florida doctor and medical director for UF Health Shands’ lung transplant program. “She could not breathe on her own.”
Holker was diagnosed with the virus in early November and admitted to the hospital Nov. 5 in Utah. Her diagnosis was a shock and her condition worsened as her lungs deteriorated.
She was transferred to several hospitals in Utah before being flown to Gainesville on Dec. 6 to UF Health Shands Hospital where she underwent a double-lung transplant on Dec. 20.
“Without the transplant she would have not been able to live,” Pelaze said. “She was that sick.”
UF Health’s lung transplant program has performed over 12 procedures successfully in the last year since the pandemic started. It is one of a few transplant centers that can handle COVID-19 patients.
Pelaze works alongside Dr. Tiago Machuca, chief of the thoracic surgery division and surgical director of the lung transplant program at Shands, who was part of the team that performed the complex operation.
Jessica Casey, charge nurse in unit-87, was also part of the team. Helping a fellow nurse was important to the team, she said.
“We were all so worried for her because we related to her as a nurse,” Casey said. “A nurse who was taking care of patients and then ended up with this disease and then ending up going from Utah all the way to Florida for a lung transplant was mind-boggling.”
Holker was initially on an ECMO machine — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — which takes the place of a patient’s circulatory system and functions as an artificial pair of lungs.
ECMO patients are high on the transplant list because they will likely die without a transplant. Holker spent the past several months in the Gainesville hospital battling the virus, undergoing her 10-hour surgery and post-operative rehab.
“I feel good,” said Holker. “I am excited.”
Pelaze said he’s “100% confident” that she will be able to complete her planned half-marathon next year.
Holker, who joined her doctors and nurses at a press conference with reporters Friday afternoon, expressed gratitude for the care she received at Shands, describing the hospital as fantastic and saying she hopes the transplant program grows.
She encourages people to wear a mask and wash their hands.
“I mean you have to wear pants to the store, a mask isn’t anything bigger than that,” she said.
Asked what she would say to her organ donor or the donor’s family, she paused briefly.
“Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t even know where to start,” Holker said. “I got a second chance of life, I am grateful.”