(PHOENIX, Ariz. – Sept. 7, 2021) – With vaccination efforts in full force and COVID-19 cases rising again in Arizona, one Surprise man counts himself lucky to be alive and has a message for the Valley.
“I never really get sick. In fact, we were all more worried about what would happen if my wife got COVID-19,” says 42-year-old, father-of-three Bob Horbaczewski who received a lifesaving double lung transplant at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in March. “We felt we were being cautious, but we all still contracted the virus. My wife and kids recovered relatively quickly, and I nearly died. I needed a lung transplant. You just can’t know how this thing is going to affect you and that’s why you really need to be safe.”
Last December, the entire Horbaczewski household tested positive for COVID-19. That was just the beginning. He would spend more than four months fighting for his life in three different hospitals, requiring assistance from a ventilator, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment, lung transplantation and intensive neuro rehabilitation.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night on December 12 and telling my wife, Monique, that she needed to drive me to the hospital. I was so short of breath,” he recalls.
Horbaczewski was admitted right away and just less than two weeks later on Christmas day, he was placed on a ventilator. His condition continued to worsen and he was transferred to another local hospital where he was placed on ECMO on Dec. 30. ECMO is essentially an artificial lung that can be used to help support a patient while their lungs recover. While it is not always a treatment option, ECMO has shown to help some qualifying patients recover from severe COVID pneumonia.
“As his wife, this has been an excruciating and difficult experience to live through,” says Horbaczewski’s wife, Monique. “We almost lost him several times, but the team at St. Joseph’s has been incredible and worked hard, with the help of an incredible and selfless organ donor, to save Bob’s life. It is not been easy adjusting, but we are so grateful to still have him with us.”
First referred to Dignity Health St. Joseph’s for a lung transplant in early January, Horbaczewski was too ill and deconditioned to qualify for transplantation. The team at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute worked with Horbaczewski’s wife and hospital care team, providing recommendations and education related to the lung transplant process.
“Bob really needed some physical rehabilitation before he could be considered as a transplant candidate,” says Rajat Walia, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of the renowned lung transplant program at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute. “It was great to see our team work so closely with those in our community to help this patient who had been hospitalized for so long and was so ill.”
By March, Horbaczewski had begun to regain some strength, but his lungs were unable to recover from COVID-19 and he was transferred to St. Joseph’s for a rapid transplant evaluation. Already among the most complicated surgical procedures, lung transplants can be even more complex in patients who have had COVID-19 due to significant scarring of the lungs.
“Transplants for COVID-19-related lung injuries are unfortunately becoming a bit more common as time goes on,” says Dr. Walia. “We’re proud that our institute has such great experience in high-risk transplantation and a team skilled in ECMO treatment to care for the sickest of the sick. Because of this we often have the ability to transplant patients, who are in grave need like Bob, rather quickly.”
Surgery went well, but Horbaczewski was so sick for so long prior to transplant that he spent an additional month in the hospital’s neuro rehabilitation unit before being discharged home on April 28, more than four months after his initial hospitalization. Lung transplant patients require lifelong follow-up care by experienced transplant pulmonologists and have to be extra cautious because of their suppressed immune systems.
Prior to contracting COVID-19, Horbaczewski was healthy, teaching high school English and coaching football. While he cannot return to his teaching career right now due to his condition, Horbaczewski says he is just happy to be alive and with his family.
“It is so great being home. Living life as a transplant patient is not always easy, but I am so grateful to be home with my wife and three kids. I am not going to take these donor lungs for granted and I hope when the community hears my story that they’ll take the virus seriously,” says Horbaczewski.
He is working hard several days a week in physical therapy sessions at St. Joseph’s Outpatient Rehabilitation and has weekly clinic visits to monitor the new lungs. He says he is looking forward to returning to his hobbies: going to the gym with his wife and creative writing. In fact, he and Monique are considering writing a book about their family’s experience and journey through COVID-19.