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Fully vaccinated, not protected: Transplant recipients look to third shot for COVID-19 protection

Dan Whithorn has a new heart and new life but remains in lockdown even though he's vaccinated.

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Just as more people are making plans to see friends and family, travel and get their life back to normal, some are still stuck in lockdown.

Organ transplant recipients are finding out they're not protected, even though they are fully vaccinated.

For Dan Whithorn, 63, simple pleasures of playing frisbee with his dog is something he didn't know he would ever be able to enjoy again.

"When people like me that have been transplant people, you know you're not too far away from death," he said.

A weakened heart and blacking out in cardiac arrest while driving in 2019 put Whithorn on the transplant list.

"That was a shocker in heart failure for a guy that tries to keep in shape," Whithorn said.

In the middle of the pandemic, the runner, received a new heart May 15, 2020.

"When it was May 16, I said, 'Today's the first day of my new heart, my new year,'" Whithorn recalled.

His new life means spending more time with his wife, children and seven grandchildren. Because of COVID-19, Whithorn's family couldn't visit him at Nebraska Medicine.

But once he got home and got the vaccine, Whithorn's excitement got his new heart racing.

"After the second shot, I was hoping for a little bit of normalcy," he said.

After an antibody test however, he experienced heartbreak. Whithorn had to put his family plans on hold.

"Unfortunately, it came out zero, negative," he said. "That was a tough day, because there was a lot of hope and wait for that day."

"We are definitely recommending to all our patients to not let their guard down. There's no margin for error here. You got a new life and you don't want to risk that by anything," said Dr. Andre Kalil with Nebraska Medicine.

He's treated very sick transplant patients with COVID-19. Kalil said their immune systems are suppressed due to the anti-rejection medicines needed to keep their organs working.

Whithorn takes 30 medicines a day and will have to the rest of his life.

The drugs are keeping his new heart beating, but at the same time are interfering with the vaccine and keeping him isolated, again.

"You don't know if they received a shot and don't know if they're sick, so it's kind of a cautious life," he said.

There are cases around the country though where transplant recipients have received a third dose of the vaccine and that's boosted their antibodies.

But doctors at Nebraska Medicine are waiting for more information and studies before they officially recommend that third shot.

"Even if you find a third shot can help you, still, if you want to really be 100% protected or close, you're going to have to add your masking, distancing and hand washing, together with a vaccine," Kalil said.

"You don't take anything for granted or anything for sure because I thought that the second shot would develop antibodies," Whithorn said.

Whithorn depends on his faith and from the bottom of his new heart, wishes everyone would get vaccinated to protect him and others still vulnerable.

"There is hope."