Robert Gehrke: This Utah nurse has fought for COVID-19 patients and is now fighting for her life

Utah has had 13 health care workers die of the coronavirus.

(Photo courtesy of Jill Holker's family) Jill Holker, a mother of three and ICU nurse at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, spent much of 2020 caring for COVID patients until she was infected. Now she is facing the possibility of a double-lung transplant.

Jill Hansen Holker is a mother of three and a dedicated nurse working in an intensive care unit in Utah County. This year, she’s been caring for COVID-stricken patients fighting for their lives.

Now Holker is fighting for her own.

Holker is not what you would consider to be a high-risk COVID-19 patient. She ran marathons for fun, ate right, took care of herself, had no health issues.

She was working tirelessly, relentlessly caring for patients at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. Yet, for nearly a month a machine has essentially been breathing for her and now she is waiting for a possible double-lung transplant.

“Simply put, Jill is everyone’s favorite person. When you see her, her face lights up and you instantly feel like the most important person to her,” said Holly Pike, a fellow nurse. ”She does everything with a confidence and grace that is so admirable. I have worked with Jill for the past six years and she is someone I hope to be just like when I grow up.”

Holker is just one of thousands of health care workers who have risked their own health helping to fight the coronavirus.

(Photo courtesy of Jill Holker's family) For the past month, Jill Holker, an intensive care unit nurse in Utah and mother of three, has been intubated after contracting COVID-19. Last week she was flown to Florida for a potential double-lung transplant.

Even though hope is on the horizon, with vaccinations of front-line health care workers expected to begin this week, hospitals are creaking under the strain. On Sunday, intensive care units at the state’s 16 major hospitals were at 102% capacity. Doctors and nurses are pushed to their limits to care for the sick.

Since the outbreak began, nearly 14,300 health care workers have tested positive for COVID, 333 have been hospitalized, and 13 have died, according to Utah data, several in the past few weeks alone.

Holker got the virus in late October or early November — it’s not clear where — and by Nov. 5 she was admitted to the hospital.

Early on, Holker’s daughter posted a video on Facebook urging people to be careful.

“My mom is fighting for her life. She works in the shock trauma ICU which means she has to deal with COVID every day,” her daughter said. “She comes home exhausted with tears in her eyes. But now instead of dealing with it she has to live it. She is young and healthy and now she can’t breathe on her own.”

The condition of Holker’s lungs had deteriorated. Early in November, a tube was inserted into her trachea to help her breathe. She was able to write notes, give hand signs and the like.

But she wasn’t getting any better. In fact, she was getting worse. She was transferred to a hospital in Salt Lake City and hooked up to what is called an ECMO machine — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — which basically replaces a patient’s circulatory system, drawing blood from a patient, oxygenating it, and pumping it back through the body. Generally they’re used during heart surgery, but have become a last-ditch effort to keep COVID patients alive.

Still not showing improvement, Hansen was flown on Dec. 6 to a hospital in Gainesville, Fla., one of a handful in the country that has performed a double-lung transplant on coronavirus patients.

It’s not certain yet that the transplant will be needed, but doctors and the family are preparing for that possibility. If it becomes necessary and a donor is found, she will have to spend three months in Florida recuperating and one of her family members will have to fly there to help care for her.

This is no way for three kids to be spending Christmas.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

So what can we do?

We can start here: Friends have rallied to support Holker and her kids, setting up one of those all-to-common GoFundMe pages — because, as the page says, Jill is “everyone’s hero.” The aim is to defray the hospital bills and family expenses.

“This GoFundMe we have set up is such a small thing for us to be able to do because she deserves the world,” said Pike. “She would do anything for anyone and this is our opportunity to do the most we can for her, during this crucial time.”

So far they have raised more than $50,000. That’s good. We can do much better. You can donate at gofundme.com/f/because-jill-is-everyones-hero.

Secondly, if you had any doubt about the virus being deadly, even to the young and healthy, look at Jill — who worked in a hospital that COVID doubters tried more than once to break into to prove it was a fraud — and appreciate her reality and that of her family.

And finally, thank the health care workers, the doctors, nurses, techs, pharmacists, all of them, who are not just keeping people alive, but putting their own health and lives at risk to do it.

The best way you can thank them this Christmas is to stay home when you can. When you can’t wear a mask, meet outside when possible, find other ways to do those things to make the holidays a little bit more normal. Your actions will show them you value their work and, more importantly, that you value them.