SANDWICH — This time last year, Henry Garza was sedated and on a ventilator at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital fighting for his life against COVID-19. This year, he’s counting his blessings after surviving a double-lung transplant.
“I wouldn’t wish [COVID-19] on my worst enemy,” Garza said. “It was the worst experience I ever had. I was close to death. Although I had a positive attitude going through it, I think nurses and doctors didn’t let on sometimes how truly bad it was. I would never want to see anyone go through this because it’s horrible. It’s a nightmare, a truly horrendous experience.”
Headed into the Christmas holiday season in 2021 looks dramatically different for Garza than 2020, and for that he said he considers himself the most thankful man in the world.
What started as a cough and upper respiratory viral infection due to COVID-19 led to both viral and bacterial pneumonia in November 2020. Garza was sedated and placed on a ventilator over the Christmas holiday, and endured a double lung transplant. He spent 200 days in the hospital, unable to eat for more than four months. He lost 70 pounds. Due to muscle atrophying, he had to learn to walk and write again.
With a new pair of lungs, Garza has returned home, is now walking up to a mile at a time. He said he loves cooking for and spending time with his family. He thanks his team of doctors, nurses and medical staff at Northwestern Medicine for saving his life, and the support of those around him.
Garza lives in Sandwich with his wife, Michele, and his two stepdaughters, Avrie and Sydney. He also has two older sons, Kyle and Austin, who do not live with him.
“The reality is that if someone gets this, it can get a hold of you like it did to me, and you don’t know what can happen,” Garza said. “Something as simple as washing your hands more, getting the vaccine and wearing a mask can possibly save someone from getting sick. A lot of people joke that it’s a cold or the flu, but it isn’t.”
‘Not going to give up’
On Nov. 17, 2020, Garza took a COVID-19 test because he wasn’t feeling well. Two days later, he was notified he had contracted the virus.
Garza, who was 54 at the time, had no pre-existing or underlying conditions.
“Back in November of last year, there was no vaccine,” Garza said. “We were always very careful, we washed our hands, wore a mask, practiced social distancing. My wife and I said that sooner or later, we were probably going to get it, and then it would be gone, we’d be fine. It wasn’t a joke to us, but boy, were we wrong.”
Although Garza’s case was severe, no one else in his home contracted the virus, he said.
The week of Thanksgiving 2020, Garza went to the emergency room at Northwestern Medicine Valley West hospital in Sandwich because he was struggling to breathe. It was Monday, Nov. 23. That same day, he was transferred to Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb, where a team in the Intensive Care Unit had more resources to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.
“They thought they’d be able to catch it and give me medicine to fix it,” Garza said. “But we kind of hit a wall. The lungs weren’t responding to the medicine, and I was gradually getting worse.”
On Dec. 20, Garza was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. His condition had worsened.
He was put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine and ventilated Dec. 23. On Christmas Eve, he underwent a tracheotomy, a procedure where a tube is placed through a person’s neck into the windpipe to allow doctors direct access to the breathing tube.
Over the next four months, from Dec. 24 to April 24, he was unable to eat or drink at all and was on a feeding tube and IV.
Nikki Pynenberg, ICU charge nurse at Kishwaukee Hospital, remembers when Garza first came into her care.
“He came in on a stretcher, still able to walk using only a little bit of oxygen,” she said. “I remember him saying he was going to beat this. He was so determined that he was walking out of here. He turned his pain into power.”
Pynenberg said Garza trusted her and her medical team to do all they could to advocate for him. She kept in close contact with Garza and his family via text. A year later, they still text each other multiple times a day.
”If I met a patient that was going to make it through [COVID-19], it was going to be Henry for sure,” Pynenberg said. “He turned everything that he was going through into something more, something positive that would benefit him. He was not going to give up.”
Garza said he doesn’t remember last Christmas at all. He was sedated and intubated, and when he awoke, the holiday was over.
“A couple of times, I didn’t know if I’d even come home,” Garza said. “It was bleak.”
‘[COVID-19] ... ate through my lungs’
In early February, Garza was added to the lung transplant list due to the virus’ toll on his body.
“The [COVID-19] and pneumonia ate through my lungs,” Garza said. “When the doctors went in to remove them, my lungs were stuck to my rib cage because they were so diseased.”
In March, a set of lungs was rejected for transplant due to blood clots, and then Garza suffered an infection that delayed his wait-list spot.
Two weeks after his name was placed back on the list, doctors told Garza they’d found a donor.
On April 16, Garza had a double-lung transplant surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Both lungs that were transplanted came from the same person, an anonymous donor.
“I am very, very grateful for my lungs and to the donor,” Garza said. “I would not have survived without a donation. The ECMO and ventilator machines served as life support for me. I would have been on machines forever.”
Irina Galyayeva, lung transplant nurse coordinator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, first met Garza after his transplant.
“No other choice, other than a transplant, would allow for him to go home to his family,” she said. “He had irreversible lung damage. The transplant was truly a second chance at life.”
Garza praised his medical team at Memorial Hospital.
“Their culture is to care for the patient, and they were really amazing,” he said. “I never experienced this level of service and care from a medical facility. It’s very humbling when you think about it, all the ways they took care of me to get me healthy again. They treated me like I was a member of their family.”
Galyayeva said seeing Garza doing so well post-surgery brings her great joy. She said her team has done more than 200 transplants at the center, including more than 30 transplants for COVID-19 patients.
“For now, and for years to come, he has a new lease on life,” Galyayeva said. “Without this lung transplant, it is unlikely he’d have another holiday season with his family.”
On May 7, Garza was discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital and went to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago for inpatient therapy. He returned home to Sandwich on June 4 after exactly 200 days in the hospital.
Garza was able to eat food two weeks after the surgery. Although the diet was limited at first, he slowly was able to eat meals and solid food.
Garza had in-home therapists until October, and since then, he attends outpatient therapy at Valley West Hospital in Sandwich.
“Life is different now. It’s a whole new type of life,” he said. “I’m in the process of recovering. I am mobile and am walking around. My voice is getting a little stronger now. It’s an overall body recovery.”
He credits his wife, stepdaughters and friends for a speedy recovery.
“My wife was amazing, and she held the family together,” he said. “Everything that we went through, just getting through it, it was all God.”
Garza said his church congregation in Plano, the Village Bible Church, organized meals and financial support for his family, and visited him in Chicago.
He said that the biggest post-surgery change is his outlook on life. It’s the simple things, he said, like sitting on his deck and listening to the birds that he appreciates more.
“I didn’t realize how tightly wound up I was before the surgery,” Garza said. “I’m enjoying life more now. My wife and I are closer now that we have ever been before. I’m bonding more with my family and friends.”
Garza said that he is looking forward to being together with his family for the holidays this year: coherent, awake and not hooked up to any machines.
“I am looking forward to decorating the Christmas tree and just being together as a family, enjoying each other,” he said. “I want to let the season be about love, peace and rejoicing God for all that He’s done. It’s been a heck of a year.”
Garza hopes to return to his longtime job where he’s worked for the past 11 years in the admissions department at Chamberlain University’s College of Nursing in the spring.
He’s also planning to attend a concert with Pynenberg, a goal they set together for when he was out of the hospital and feeling better.
“I think it’s important to take care of yourself and each other,” he said. “[COVID-19] is real, it’s super real. It’s nothing to take lightly or to dismiss as a political thing. Take it seriously, and let’s be kind to each other. Be considerate, be careful, be courteous, and hopefully nobody else will have to go through what I went through and what my family went through.”