From a coma to a 5K

Mar 292011
Authors: Rachel Childs

Robin Nicolai thought she had the stomach flu when she fell ill last year. But she knew it something more serious when her art teacher raised concerns.

“My teacher was like ‘Honey, you look yellow,’” the freshman social work major said.

The reason her skin was yellow was because her liver was excreting bilirubin, a substance found in bile once the liver breaks down old red blood cells. Normal levels are around one. Nicolai’s level was 10.

She went to hospital on March 1 and found out that she was in the advance stages of liver failure. But she had no family history of liver problems and did not drink or smoke.

Before being rushed into surgery on March 9 her family had to say their goodbyes. They didn’t have much hope that she would make it through after the surgery because the high levels of ammonia in Nicolai’s brain sent her into acoma prior to surgery.

“She was severe enough that we were looking at less than a couple of weeks, maybe less than a week,” said Diane Dovel, nurse and certified critical transplant coordinator at The Children’s Hospital in Denver.

Doctors performed an emergency transplant with a liver of a different blood type due to the severity of her condition.

Nicolai woke up ten days later in the hospital with a tube down her throat to help her breathe and no idea that she had just undergone an organ replacement. She went into the coma before the surgery was scheduled.

“I couldn’t eat for 6 weeks. I was living off of IV nutrients,” Nicolai said. “I dropped like 25 pounds.”

She stayed on bed rest and was released at the end of April, 44 days after her surgery.

With her credits already completed, Nicolai ended up walking at graduation. She even danced at prom without assistance.

“She’s an example of how successful organ transplant can be, and it can make a big difference in someone’s life,” Dovel said.

Now the Fort Collins native is running at the Denver Liver Life Walk and Twilight 5k on May 19 hosted by the American Liver Foundation. She is currently raising money to be sponsored during the run.

All proceeds will go back to the ALF to help treat the nearly 30 million Americans who are affected by liver disease.

There are more than 100 liver diseases according to Jeffrey Petrovic, vice president of the ALF’s Rocky Mountain Division.

Some causes of liver disease include binge drinking, use of dirty needles and unhealthy lifestyles.

“When you think about health, liver isn’t the first thing that comes to mind but it should be because it’s a very important organ in the body,” Petrovic said.

The race is a chance for Nicolai to show that her ordeal has not stopped her from living her life.

“I just wanted to prove that I could do it. Prove to myself and everyone else who thought I wouldn’t be able to walk again or talk again,” Nicolai said.

Nicolai plans on becoming a patient advocate and working in children’s hospitals helping patients like herself.

The only reminder of her ordeal is a large Y-shaped scar on her stomach, but it does not affect her self-confidence.

“I’m still rockin’ the bikinis,” she said.

Staff writer Rachel Childs can be reached at

Get involved

When: May 19-May 20 7 p.m.
Where: City Park Pavilion, Denver
For more information go to

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