When Colby Vondenstein and his wife, Tori, decided to spend Christmas with other members of their family, they didn't anticipate that the 24-year-old father of three would end up needing a multi-organ transplant in order to stay alive.
On Dec. 28, after the Crosby, Texas, family returned home from their "little Christmas," as Tori described it, Colby woke up feeling under the weather and decided to get tested for COVID-19. His results came back positive, and the rest of the family tested positive, as well.
In the days after his diagnosis, Tori, 28, recalled her husband feeling feverish with body aches. Meanwhile, she was struggling with a cough and fever but quickly recovered. "You read about the symptoms, like, these are common symptoms," she told TODAY. "He wasn't really short of breath in the beginning."
Their plan initially was just to "let (the virus) take its course," she said, but a few days later, his symptoms got so severe that he couldn't even get up to use the restroom. Tori took her husband to a nearby emergency health center, where he was examined, given some cough medicine and sent home.
"Two days later, he was in Baytown Methodist Hospital fighting for his life," Tori recalled, adding that she had to call an ambulance because of his breathing problems. "They were giving him steroids to try to help the lungs, but they couldn't do a whole lot because the kidneys were failing. ... They stated that ... that he would not make it."
On Jan. 11, Colby was transferred to Houston Methodist hospital. "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 said.
"His course was particularly aggressive," Colby's pulmonologist, Dr. Howard Huang, told TODAY. "He came in and was already in renal failure, was already having severe respiratory distress, progressed very quickly to need mechanical ventilation."
Huang called the severity of Colby's condition a "head scratcher" because nothing in his medical history indicated he had increased susceptibility to the virus.
Shortly after arriving in Houston, Colby was placed on an ECMO machine, a type of life support that oxygenates a patient's blood outside the body. It partially replaces the function of the lungs, Huang explained.
"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."
Colby stayed on ECMO for two months, Tori said. Huang recalled that Colby got to a point where his lung and kidney function wasn't going to improve, no matter the amount of supportive measures, which are designed to be temporary. His care team had to decide if he was a good candidate for a transplant.
"This is obviously a very severe illness in a desperate situation," Huang said. "We usually like to do transplant as more of a controlled process instead of under emergency conditions. ... He really didn't have that much more time on these devices."
Colby ultimately made the transplant list because the care team felt he had enough resilience due to his age and having no underlying conditions. "We felt ... he had a reasonable chance to be able to get through this," Huang said. "Transplant is done for COVID-19 in just a handful of cases. Worldwide there's probably fewer than 100 cases that have been done to date."
While waiting for a donor, Tori said his nurses and doctors "were still doing everything they could to keep him alive. ... 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."
Tori prayed in Colby's room, and that night, she received a call that there was a match. Colby underwent a double lung and single kidney transplant the next day, on Feb. 28.
"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."
About four weeks after the surgery, Colby was able to take his first steps. "It's felt good to be able to get out and take some steps again," he said. Colby had been in and out of consciousness for two months during the ordeal.
"I honestly don't think (the doctors) thought I was going to recover this fast," he added. "They all looked shocked when they saw me do that."
Huang witnessed the moment, calling it "enormously gratifying. ... Many patients, when they get to the point where they're on an ECMO machine and then have a transplant afterward, they tend to take a very long time to recover, weeks to months. He's really on an accelerated path to recovery."
"This whole year since the pandemic started, it's just been this relentless stream of death and suffering that we've seen. Moments like this really lifts our spirits."
Huang expects that Colby will spend another two weeks or so in the hospital and is "out of the woods" with his COVID-19 infection. Tori said Colby's eager to be able to celebrate their wedding anniversary on April 22 at home.
While the past few months have been incredibly painful, the Vondensteins are sharing their story to raise awareness of COVID-19's impact on young, healthy people.
"Just be more cautious," Tori said. "We don't go out to eat, we don't do all that. But even if you get sick, be more cautious of your signs and symptoms, know when to get help or seek physicians. You don't realize it until it happens to someone that you love how deadly the virus can be."
Huang stressed that Colby's recovery is "almost a miraculous event," and he doesn't want people to think that if "you get sick, we can do a transplant, and that'll fix the problem."
He added that the tried-and-true methods of reducing COVID-19 spread, including masking, hand-washing and social distancing, are still the best ways to protect yourself, along with getting vaccinated when you're eligible, which can prevent severe outcomes, like Colby's.
Colby also wanted to thank his donor and their family for their "selflessness."
"I don't wish this on anybody," he said. "It's definitely a hard one to go through what I'm going through."