R.J. Redstrom didn’t have much time left.
On a Monday in August 2020, still early in the pandemic, he noticed he had a cough. The next morning, he woke up feeling even worse – a rarity for Redstrom, whose intense fitness regimen usually helped prevent him from getting sick. He took a COVID test, and days later the results confirmed his fear: He had come down with the virus.
A week later, he couldn’t breathe.
The sudden and serious sickness was a new experience for Redstrom, who had always thought of himself as a healthy person. At age 44, the same age his father died of a heart attack, he had decided to change his life and signed up for a triathlon, then spent countless hours training. He fell in love with it. Redstrom estimated that between 2006 and 2019, he competed in 157 triathlons.
Now living alone, he called an ambulance that took him to Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, where he received all the treatments the hospital had available at the time. None worked. His doctors and nurses explained that his odds of making it out of the hospital alive were slim and he needed to get his affairs in order. He consented to a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.
He was deathly sick and solitary. Pandemic distancing rules in the hospital meant that he could talk to his mother and his sister on the phone, but it was too risky for either of them to enter his hospital room.
“Not only was I dying, but I was dying alone,” he recalled.
Then, Redstrom said, came the miracles.
The first was that his mother called his boss, figuring that since her son was in charge of human resources at a Richmond hospital, someone who worked with him would have to know something they could try. Redstrom’s boss made several calls and found a physician who had more experience treating COVID. After a CT scan, the doctor determined that Redstrom would be a good candidate for a double-lung transplant.
That was the second miracle. The idea was novel and by that point in the pandemic, only a handful of people with COVID had received lung transplants.
“The fact that he even knew to suggest that was just amazing to me,” Redstrom said.
Then came the third miracle. Hospital staff called around to see if anyone would perform a double-lung transplant.
“One thing led to another, and UVA [Health] stepped up and were the first to agree to take my case,” Redstrom said.
Dr. Hannah Mannem, a pulmonologist at the UVA Health University Medical Center, and Dr. Mark Roeser, a transplant surgeon, signed up. Mannem set up a FaceTime call with Redstrom and his mother.
“He wrote, ‘I want to live’ on a little sign,” Mannem said. The sign retracted the DNR he had signed earlier. “So we were like, ‘OK, he’s in it.’”
Roeser and Mannem had just agreed to perform the first double-lung transplant on a COVID patient in the region. They arranged to have Redstrom transported to the University hospital.
The transplant procedure was successful, though Mannem said she was unsure about what recovery might look like. Usually, people who receive lung transplants have a chronic disease instead of an acute infection.
“COVID was a new reason to do a lung transplant,” Mannem said.
After the surgery, Redstrom set out on the long path toward recovery, a process he called “hard as heck.”
“Even after two weeks in intensive inpatient rehab, I could probably only walk 20 steps with a walker,” Redstrom said.
It was a far cry from being able to swim, run and bike a cumulative 16 miles as often as 18 times a year, but over time, he began to rebuild his strength in outpatient therapy. He even set a goal of competing in another triathlon within a year.
It didn’t happen.
He lost too much weight while he was sick and needed more time to recover from spending 76 days in the hospital and having two new lungs. It took a year for him to get fit enough to train for triathlons again, but slowly he started to return to a more normal life, albeit with more precautions.
In June, Redstrom competed in his first triathlon since the pandemic began. He was slower than he used to be, but he finished.
“My lungs only allow me to push it so hard, but they allow me to do it,” Redstrom said. “I’ve come a long way from being on my deathbed.”
Mannem said that Redstrom was a better-than-usual candidate for a lung transplant because he had been active and had no health problems. Still, she said he exceeded the team’s expectations by returning to triathlons so quickly.
“R.J. has a fighting spirit that’s unique. He’s a good example of someone who really saw death in the face, and it changed the way he lives his life,” Mannem said.
Redstrom credited the team at UVA Health for his successful recovery. They guided his family through those scary weeks where he was unconscious on a ventilator. They continue to support him when he comes back for checkups. They’ll even be there to cheer him on during his next triathlon in September.
“Those folks at UVA … they put me back together,” Redstrom said.