Jaleezia Gibson, a 19-year-old college student and track athlete from Pennsylvania, was in her dorm room at Minnesota State University, Mankato, when she began feeling poorly. After two days of nausea and vomiting, she called 911. Soon thereafter, she was airlifted to Mayo Clinic from the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. She had severe liver failure. And COVID-19.
Dr. Julie Heimbach, chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, says the team had to make the difficult decision as to whether to proceed with a liver transplant when Gibson, who was gravely ill, was infected with COVID-19.
"Jaleezia's kidneys had shut down, so she was on hemodialysis. She was on a ventilator that was breathing for her and in a coma because of her liver failure," Heimbach says. "We had to make a decision very quickly with little data to guide us, but our teamwork, especially with infectious diseases, critical care, hepatology, anesthesia, and transplant surgery, made it possible for us to proceed despite her COVID-19 diagnosis."
In doing so, Gibson is thought to be the first patient at Mayo Clinic to undergo a liver transplant while infected with COVID-19.
After two months of recovery and therapy, the young sprinter not only survived, but also her determination and strength inspired the teen's health care team. Heimbach calls Gibson's journey to recovery "remarkable."
"My body would just feel like it was just shutting down. So I called 911. And then they came, took me to the ambulance and then the helicopter," Gibson says.
"Miss Gibson came to us with severe liver failure and her diagnosis also, unfortunately, included that of COVID," Heimbach says.
Gibson reflected on a video shown to her.
"And here's the parallel bars, my first time," Gibson says.
Soon, however, she began to regain her strength.
"I've been doing boxing, stairs, the bike, squats, balancing, strengthening ― all strengthening stuff to make my legs (and arms) stronger," Gibson says.
It's been a team effort.
"Having to recover from a transplant, essentially, you know, just with your family, I know by your side on the phone, but not able to be with you, you know, taking the steps with you down the hall, that all has to be with physical therapy. They have been remarkably supportive for her, and really the whole team that has helped her to recover. It's been fantastic," Heimbach says.
"I think I could speak for all the therapists in our office that worked with Jaleezia, as she was honestly the shining light and a lot of our lives during this time because she was just so positive."
- Shanna Britt, therapist
Shanna Britt was one of the first therapists who worked with Gibson.
"You just did stairs without a handrail. And we're over here like on the verge of tears because we're just so happy and excited for you," Britt says.
"And, really, the personal fortitude that it takes and the attitude that it takes is remarkable and inspiring," Heimbach says. "And Miss Gibson is very remarkable. And her attitude is so impressive. And it really speaks to the fact that she has been able to recover so quickly and is pushing herself to be where she is today. And to be honest, she actually had liver disease, and she was functioning at a very high level without even knowing it. So I have an expectation that she has unlimited potential in the future."
"Right here, she's walking for the first time without a walker or anything around the nursing unit," Britt says. "I think I could speak for all the therapists in our office that worked with Jaleezia, as she was honestly the shining light and a lot of our lives during this time because she was just so positive.
"All of us are really hoping that you can get back to that high-level sprinting, and considering in the last month the amount of progress that you made, I really do think that it's possible. It's going to take a while for you to get that endurance back. But otherwise, I think hope's is just that she's happy and healthy, and lives an awesome life ― and hopefully you will call us in a few years and let us know how she's doing."
"I will," Gibson says. "I'm looking forward to gaining my strength back to be able to run again and eventually make the Olympics or something."