The coronavirus made its way through Matt Kemp’s West Chester Twp. home in November 2021 for the second time — where it first reached his wife, Angela. She had a minor case that the family tried to confine to the basement.
Given Matt’s good health, frequent checkups, active lifestyle, young age and his harmless past experience with the coronavirus, he wasn’t particularly worried when he caught it nearly a week after his wife did.
“I had already had it previously in 2020, and I was sick for a few days and then I was fine,” Matt said. “With COVID, I don’t know if you’ve had it, you kinda just feel ‘meh,’ you know? Just ‘ugh.’ It isn’t great, but, I didn’t feel like I had it bad.”
This time, though, Matt stayed sick longer. After 12 days with COVID, he was finally testing negative and planning on going back to work, pending approval from his doctor via a virtual-visit. Matt — a local Realtor alongside Angela — had only one remaining symptom that made him feel less than 100%.
“I kept kind of having this cough, and when I’d cough I’d get a little lightheaded,” Matt said.
A nurse practitioner asked him over a video call, “Well, what’s your oxygen?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know, how would I check my oxygen?’ I was completely ignorant of what I’m aware of now,” Matt said.
Angela, who had fought off the disease with relative ease, went to the store to get a pulse oximeter, a device that checks your heart rate and oxygen saturation levels. A good result is around 95; Matt showed 77.
“I called my doctor and said, ‘Is this bad?’ Matt said. “Again, I didn’t feel horrible, I just kept getting light headed when I coughed. I just didn’t know if that was normal, or just getting over it. Like I said, that day I was planning to go back to work to show houses.”
The decision to go to the hospital
On the day before Thanksgiving, Matt’s doctor advised that he go to the hospital immediately to improve his breathing. After initially wanting to wait until after the holiday, Matt followed his doctor’s advice and entered the emergency room of the nearest hospital, University of Cincinnati West Chester.
“‘Go get some breathing treatment, you’ll be fine,’ is the quote that keeps ringing in my head,” Matt said. “I wouldn’t have gone to the hospital otherwise. Again, I wasn’t feeling that bad.”
“I didn’t even hug my kids goodbye. I didn’t think that I was going to be gone for more than a few hours,” Matt said.
“Three and a half, four months later, it was a completely different story.”
Matt was admitted to the hospital with COVID-pneumonia on Nov. 24. Matt said he was asked to sign waivers to allow for his eventual intubation early on in his interaction with hospital staff.
Intubation is the process by which a tube gets inserted into the airway, which keeps it open and provides a direct path for air to get to the lungs. On the other end of the tube, more often than not, is a mechanical ventilator that’s pushing air in and out of the body.
Matt, who said the waivers were brought up maybe an hour after he first was seen, felt that such a serious decision was premature.
“For me, I had always heard, if you get intubated that’s kind of a death knell. I was very, very opposed to that at that time,” Matt said.
“I said ‘No, I’m not signing that, no. There’s no need for that,’ he said. “I came here for some breathing treatments, per my doctor. I thought that’s all that I was here for.”
What Matt originally expected to be a quick breathing treatment turned into an extended hospitalization, where he received extensive breathing treatments via a CPAP mask. Matt was unable to have visitors.
Ups and downs while recovering
Over his stay, his condition ebbed and flowed. After his first week, though, Matt had rebounded.
“I was actually improving. They were talking about [how in] the next few days I could be out of there,” he said. But then, Matt had what he describes as a “triggering event” that negated all of his progress overnight.
Matt said the oxygen that he was receiving through his CPAP mask had dried his nose to the point where it clogged with blood, which he said was a problem for four hours.
“I was unable to breathe correctly, which caused me to hyperventilate, which caused my stats to go down,” Matt said. “That morning, I was basically told that I needed to be intubated or I would die.”
Matt didn’t have any pre-existing conditions. He religiously worked out, did CrossFit, ate healthily, generally avoided anything past the common cold, and generally prided himself on his overall health.
“At 39, I never thought I would be faced with an option of my own mortality or not,” Matt said.
He called Angela, who hadn’t seen him since the day before Thanksgiving, and told her his ultimatum. Matt consented to intubation on Dec. 4 — 10 days after his initial hospitalization.
For his intubation, Matt was put into an induced coma, which would allow him to be immediately transferred via airlift to the Ohio State University’s Ross Heart Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, which at this point in the pandemic was experienced and specialized in caring for COVID patients. The unit allowed for visitors, meaning Angela could visit daily.
Part of that specialization includes a broad extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program, which Matt was put on on Dec. 8. Essentially, Matt’s blood was routed through a machine that filtered out carbon dioxide and delivered oxygenated blood back into his body.
“It is a very abrasive process. Most people don’t survive on it too long,” Matt said.
‘Daddy might not make it’
Matt awoke five and a half weeks later to a new hospital, a new year and a new complication.
“I woke up with all this equipment attached to me; things in my neck, things in my face, things in my chest,” Matt said.
Matt was conscious, but unable to speak. His only way to communicate thoughts was to write — often illegibly — on a whiteboard. OSU medical staff, along with Angela — who had voyaged to and from Columbus each weekday that Matt was comatose — gradually filled him in on the many close calls that occurred during his coma.
“During my slumber, I had gone into shock multiple times; crashed multiple times; been given less than a week to live twice; my lungs had collapsed on five different occasions — my right lung was still collapsed when I woke up,” he said. “My wife was there by my side the entire time. I crashed on Christmas, I almost died on Christmas, apparently.”
Matt’s near-death experience on Christmas was due to an abrupt halt in his ECMO treatment, Angela said. A brief blip meant that the machine needed to be hand cranked, and Matt’s vitals dropped instantly.
“At this point, Matt’s O² dropped to zero and I watched his eyes roll back in the back of his head,” Angela said. “He almost … he essentially died. After that day, I had to tell [our kids] that Daddy might not make it.”
Angela had to explain to her three kids, aged 17, 9 and 7, that Matt was on two separate forms of life support — ECMO and a ventilator. Up to that point, the precariousness of Matt’s condition wasn’t fully obvious to the kids.
“That was the hardest because I just thought that Matt would be the difference, you know?” Angela said. “He wouldn’t be everybody else, he would be able to get through it, you know? All these other people aren’t Matt.”
“That was hard, because my son would cry every night and just say, ‘I don’t want to lose my Daddy,’ and I couldn’t do anything to fix it. There was nothing I could do other than be there and understand exactly what he was taking and be active in his care; and that’s what I did,” Angela said.
Angela made sure to fully understand what was going on with Matt’s treatment and helped him with range of motion exercises and massages in down time.
“[I’d] push and push and push that man, because I wasn’t going to live without saying I didn’t try everything,” Angela said.
Matt also later learned that his COVID-pneumonia and its ensuing treatment had caused him to develop pulmonary fibrosis, an irreparable scarring of the lungs that thickens the tissue and reduces breathing capacity.
Learning about his lungs
A day later, Matt was told he’d need new lungs.
“The first question I asked was, ‘Is there another option? How is this possible?’” Matt said. “Coming into this, I thought there were two options with COVID: You got over it, or you passed away. I didn’t know there was an in between where there was a lung transplant.
Matt said he learned online that oftentimes, patients who receive lung transplants only live for five to 10 years after transplant.
“Why would I do this for five to 10 years? Why can’t I just tough this out? I’ve toughed everything else out in my life. Why not?”
Begrudgingly, Matt came to understand that new lungs would be the only course of action that would get him out of what he described as a “living nightmare.”
After stabilizing on ECMO, Matt was put on the lung donor waiting list on Jan. 18. Due to his young age, impressive health before COVID and the critical nature of his current state, he was placed second in line in the region.
This was the moment that Angela felt the most confident that Matt would make it.
“We felt like, ‘OK, he’s gonna make it. He’s gonna be fine,” Angela said.
Though, being that close to the top didn’t mean it would be a short wait. Matt spent the wait feeling conflicted about what he was waiting for.
“I waited for three weeks laying there. Mentally, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m waiting for someone’s life to go sideways so I can continue mine,’” Matt said.
Angela and Matt’s mother later told him that he showed next to no emotion while he was waiting for a transplant, which he attributed to pure shock.
“It was the longest, most hellacious three weeks of my entire life. I was still trying to process what was even going on.”
On Feb. 3, a Columbus-area organ donor in Matt’s age group died as a snowstorm hit the region, which, for Matt, meant he’d get new lungs the next day.
Before surgery, Matt wasn’t sure that he’d come out of it alive. But, after an eight-hour, successful double lung transplant surgery, Matt’s condition improved quickly and drastically.
“There was a sense of relief that I recall,” he said. “I made it.”
Matt was soon joined by his three children, whom he had still not seen since he left his house for a quick breathing treatment in late November, three months ago.
“To finally be able to hug them again was just the greatest feeling in the world. That was the first time I’d seen them in months, and they had to see me like that.”
That same day, Matt said he was up on his feet and moving around with assistance. Within a few weeks, he was walking, eating and drinking on his own.
He broke physical therapy records at the hospital, and improved quickly and fully enough to where today, he can run, swim, lift weights, play with his kids and go back to work.
Still, he started from a low point. Over his hospitalization, Matt had lost over 70 pounds. The first time he really stopped to look in the mirror after his surgery was when he initially noticed how frail he had really become.
“I just broke down. I just started crying,” Matt said. “I honestly hadn’t stopped to look at myself [before].”
“If you saw me today walking down the street, you’d have zero clue,” Matt said. “I’ve rebounded that hard. The doctors are still astonished that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do.”
For the most part, Matt’s life today resembles what it was before his bout with COVID. The major exception being his now intentionally-suppressed immune system.
Organ recipients are put on immunosuppressants in order to stop their body from rejecting their new organs. Matt can no longer spend much time in the sun. He can’t have alcohol and he avoids sniffling noses as best he can. He’s at a greater risk for cancers and kidney failure. Lung rejection will remain a concern.
“Basically, I’ve gotta watch my back for the rest of my life,” Matt said. But, he’d rather not be reminded of all that.
“I don’t want to be treated differently. I certainly don’t want to be pitied,” Matt said. “I don’t want people to not drink alcohol in front of me because I can’t drink alcohol anymore. For all intents and purposes, I want to go back to my normal life. And, for all intents and purposes, I have.”
The forecast for how long Matt can live complication-free with his new lungs is still up in the air.
Dr. Matthew Henn, an assistant professor of cardiac surgery at OSU who performed Matt’s double lung transplant, said the team at Ross Heart Hospital have only been able to do 20 transplants at the time of reporting.
Before COVID, not many people as young as Matt have needed lung transplants. As a result, there’s little data to show how lung transplants might impact a healthy 39-year-old like Matt, Henn said.
“This is kind of uncharted territory, in terms of doing lung transplants for COVID,” Henn said. “The short answer is, we don’t know.”
“We’re hopeful that it’s going to be a really durable treatment for him and will last him a long time,” Henn said.
Henn, whom Matt described as “one of the most fantastic human beings” he’s ever met, said that Matt’s resilience and recovery has been remarkable, given how sick he was and the amount of folks who don’t make it to ECMO in the first place.
“He’s recovered very quickly and a lot of that is a testament to him,” Henn said. “He was incredibly motivated to his family, his wife was really pushing him and was heavily involved in his care.”
While Matt is capable of physically living a more-or-less normal life, he still has days where his experience weighs on him mentally. He still struggles to understand why this whole situation happened to him.
“I think somewhere deep down I’m still processing this,” Matt said.
“Nobody can tell me why this happened,” he said. “I think that’s the toughest part.”
Specifically, it’s hard for Matt to come to terms with how this happened to him in particular, given just how healthy he was and how much pride he put into his personal upkeep. Meanwhile, he’s seen others who don’t take care of themselves come away from COVID with little-to-no complications.
“And I look at this and I’m like, ‘How the heck did this happen to me?’”
Answers that highlight the randomness of COVID such as, ‘Well, this disease just does crazy things sometimes,’ haven’t been able to provide him much comfort.
Matt said he was naive to the fact that something like this could happen to someone like him. The whole experience has messed with him mentally, he said.
“Every once in a while, I’ll be at the gym or doing something and I just get upset that this has happened. I still can’t wrap my mind around it,” he said. “Sometimes, I beat myself up because I’m like, ‘Somehow, I let this happen to me. How did I let this happen to me?’”
Matt has support groups for folks who have gone through medical nightmares. Most in his groups have had chronic diseases or have dealt with their illness for years. Some have been waiting on transplant lists for years.
“Some of these folks wait on the list for 10 years or better before they get the chance that I got,” Matt said.
“That helps keep me grounded sometimes when I get really pissed off that this happened to me,” he said. “I’m getting the opportunity a lot of others aren’t given. There are many people that die every day waiting for a transplant. I jumped ahead of them in line, basically, because of my condition.”
“That helps level me out when I’m having a rough day mentally, because I still struggle with this,” Matt said.
Matt said the outpouring of support he’s gotten from family, friends and even strangers has helped him balance out some of the negative feelings he has about his bout with COVID. He said his hospitalization has made strong relationships with his family even stronger.
Angela said she was able to befriend and rely on other visitors at the hospital who knew exactly what she was going through in a way that nobody else could.
“My wife and I are closer than ever. We’ve always had a good relationship, but she was there by my side every day. She drove from Cincinnati to Columbus every day for months. Months. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is,” Matt said.
“[Angela] stood by my side and was my advocate when I couldn’t be my own advocate. You don’t make it through these things without great support.”
“We have a huge village,” Angela said. “It was the best thing from the most traumatic experience.”
The Kemps’ family and friends came together to take the kids to and from school and to feed and care for the kids whenever needed, and even went so far as to work on the Kemps’ house when Matt was hospitalized in case the family would need to sell the house to cover medical costs.
“I’m very lucky and very fortunate to have made it out alive, and with a better realization of the people I have in my life who are willing to do anything for me,” Matt said.
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