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100th Lung Transplant Performed at Northwestern Medicine

Chicago, IL – Tommy Lipnick was born and raised in Chicago where he became a Grammy-nominated producer, engineer and musician, well-known for his long association with The Smashing Pumpkins. After being diagnosed with a rare immune system disorder that affects the lungs, Lipnick became the 100th patient to receive a lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where he was born. On January 10, Lipnick celebrated his 55th birthday at Northwestern Memorial with the Northwestern Medicine transplant team that saved his life.

“I woke up and could breathe again. It’s unbelievable,” says Lipnick. “I’m not gasping for breath anymore. I’m back to normal. Actually, better than normal.”

Eight years ago, Lipnick started having common cold symptoms that wouldn’t go away. Doctors diagnosed him with a rare lung disease known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis. It occurs in some people after they breath in certain substances in the environment such as dust, fungus, molds or chemicals. The substances can trigger the immune system, causing inflammation of the lungs, making it difficult for the lungs to function properly.

“The symptoms would come and go. Some days, I’d have strep throat or pneumonia, and then other days I’d function just fine,” explains Lipnick. “I was able to manage the disease for years, but in 2019, my health rapidly started to decline.”

While on the most recent reunion tour with Smashing Pumpkins, Lipnick was admitted to a hospital in Europe for treatment. Upon returning to the United States, Lipnick started to feel better and rejoined the band in California. But after a few weeks on tour, Lipnick’s symptoms got worse and he needed medical attention.

“Despite going to numerous hospitals in the United States and Europe, no one could figure out the rapid decline of my lungs,” says Lipnick. “I could have gone to any hospital in California, but I insisted on returning home to Chicago. I was born at Northwestern Memorial and trusted them to save my life. They’re at the forefront of leading-edge research and patient care. It’s a world-class hospital with world-class doctors in a world-class city.”

When Lipnick arrived at Northwestern Memorial in October 2019, doctors tested and admitted him for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – a common respiratory virus that can be serious for infants and older adults. After spending one week in the hospital, Lipnick attempted to take it easy, but within a few weeks, he returned to the emergency department and collapsed.

“Tommy was incredibly sick when he arrived and both his lungs and heart were failing,” says Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Lung Transplant Program. “In the middle of the night, we had to emergently place him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and a heart-assist device, to take over the function of the lungs and heart. Tommy remained on the artificial devices for two weeks, but unfortunately his lungs showed irreversible damage. His only option for survival was a double lung transplant.”

The day after Thanksgiving, Lipnick’s name was added to the lung transplant waiting list. Less than 48 hours later the transplant team found a match, and on December 1, 2019, Lipnick became the 100th patient to receive a lung transplant at Northwestern Medicine.

Once a patient’s name is added to the transplant waiting list, it typically takes us about 30 days to find a match – much shorter than the national average of three months,” explains Rade Tomic, MD, a pulmonologist and medical director of the Lung Transplant Program.Our wait-times at Northwestern Medicine are one of the shortest in the United States, and in Tommy’s case, we were able to find a match within two days. No patient has ever died while on the lung transplant waiting list at Northwestern Medicine; we have the infrastructure and expertise to provide world-class clinical care and research.”

Northwestern Medicine launched its lung transplant program in 2014. Most patients eligible for lung transplants are dependent on oxygen to get through the day and suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other advanced lung diseases. In the United States, more than 1,300 people are currently listed for a lung transplant. In Illinois, 55 people are on the lung transplant waiting list.

Following the life-saving lung transplant procedure, most patients report complete independence in day-to-day life. Lung transplant recipients follow-up regularly with their doctors, and the goal is to help patients get back to a normal routine. In Lipnick’s case, that means going back to work with a new lease on life.

“I now have two birthdays to celebrate: January 10, the day I was born at Northwestern Memorial; and December 1, the day I received my new lungs,” says Lipnick. “I’ve learned so many lessons about the importance of organ donation, and thanks to my donor, I’ll be able to make music again – but this time, I’ll be healthier. I’m excited for my ‘new normal.’”

For more information on Northwestern Medicine’s Lung Transplant Program, visit nm.org.