Navy Vet is First to Receive Heart Transplant Through Northwestern Medicine and Veterans Affairs Heart Failure Collaboration
Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute cardiologists established an advanced heart failure clinic at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago
CHICAGO - When 58-year-old veteran Dwayne Patterson reflects on his time in the United States Navy the first word that comes to mind is pride. The second is adventure.
After completing boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago, Ill., Patterson was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif. With three western Pacific tours on the USS Carl Vinson, Patterson had the unique experience of living on an aircraft carrier while visiting more places in four years than many people visit in a lifetime.
“I’m very proud of my time in the Navy and very thankful for the experiences it gave me,” said Patterson, who now lives in Park Forest, Illinois. “Those tours gave me the opportunity to see the world. We went everywhere from Hawaii to Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and more. It was like a dream vacation while living on a city at sea.”
When Patterson discharged from the Navy, he returned to California for 10 years before returning to federal service taking a role with the United States Postal Service (USPS). He worked for USPS for nearly 25 years when he was offered a promotion that would bring him to Minnesota. A year and half after his move, Patterson started to notice changes in his health.
“It came on very suddenly. I was working in the mailroom and started feeling short of breath when walking just short distances from one side of the room to the other. I knew something was wrong,” said Patterson, who left work and drove to the nearest urgent care clinic.
After being told he needed a higher level of care, Patterson drove himself to the emergency department at the nearest academic medical center in Minneapolis. He would not see the outside of a hospital again for three weeks.
“I lost consciousness in the ER that night and when I woke up the next morning, they told me I had 13 TIAs, or miniature strokes, overnight,” said Patterson. “The doctors told me that these were warning signs and the big one will come if I didn’t seek treatment immediately.”
Patterson’s health continued to decline, and he spent the next two months in and out of the hospital. He was soon diagnosed as being in congestive heart failure (CHF) with his heart functioning at less than five percent. His best option for survival would be a heart transplant or left ventricular assist device (LVAD).
He made the decision to return to Chicago where he had family support from his sister. They drove from Minnesota directly to Jesse Brown VA Medical Center where he would meet Sarah E. Chuzi, MD, cardiologist at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, who had recently established an onsite advanced heart failure clinic for veterans at Jesse Brown. Patterson would be in and out of the hospital for the next three months while his medical team assessed his condition.
“Dwayne got sick very quickly. When I first saw him in clinic, he could barely get onto the exam table without shortness of breath,” said Dr. Chuzi, who first began caring for patients at Jesse Brown VA during her medical residency. “If you have taken care of a veteran, or met a veteran, you know that they are very stoic, and they are unlikely to complain. So, I knew, just looking in his eyes, that he was very sick and really scared and that he needed an intervention quickly.”
Dr. Chuzi and a multidisciplinary team of Northwestern Medicine and VA clinicians began the process of evaluating Patterson for a heart transplant. They soon determined that he was likely to benefit, so he was added to the heart transplant waiting list in March. Patterson was too sick to go home, so he was admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to wait for a donor heart, which came in April 2023.
“I remember the day the call came. I was in the hospital and not feeling well, then they told me, ‘We found you a heart and we want to schedule surgery,’” recalls Patterson. “You know, I never feared. I’m a man of faith, which guided me. The sickness had just come on so fast. But I knew I had the best medical team at one of the best hospitals for a heart transplant and at the VA. I was ready.”
Veterans are so resilient and strong, and they have served our country. They are incredibly deserving of good care.
The advanced heart failure collaboration between Northwestern Medicine and Jesse Brown VA Medical Center is a continuation of a longstanding relationship between the two organizations. For more than 77 years, medical residents from Northwestern have rotated through the VA during their medical training, the longest of such academic affiliation in the VA system.
“The VA system has been involved in the training of two thirds of the physicians in the United States and the partnership between Jesse Brown and Northwestern is where this all began,” said Sarah Unterman, MD, Chief of Staff at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. “Dwayne’s experience and the collaboration between our VA clinicians and the Northwestern Medicine teams exemplifies the value that these partnerships bring to our veterans and to the physicians who are so privileged to care for them.”
Dr. Chuzi credits her medical training at Jesse Brown as the inspiration for wanting to dedicate her career to caring for veterans.
“The VA has always had a special place in my heart. Mainly because of the patients, the veterans,” said Dr. Chuzi, who has veterans in her family. “They are so resilient and strong, and they have served our country. They are incredibly deserving of good care.”
The veteran patient population faces many health care challenges due to social determinants of health, such as lack of access to transportation, neighborhood crime, financial insecurity, and housing instability, which can have a negative impact on their health. They are also a patient population with high rates of risk factors for heart failure such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
“Heart failure in general is extremely burdensome to the population at large, but especially to our veterans because these risk factors for heart failure are so prevalent,” said Dr. Chuzi. “This is a population where there is a ton of advanced disease, but if you don’t have someone necessarily who is specifically trained in looking for patients with this disease, you might not find it. We’re hopeful that our program will help more veterans get the advanced treatments they need.”
In less than a year, more than 10 patients have been referred to Northwestern Medicine from the Jesse Brown VA for advanced heart failure surgical therapies, with eight patients receiving LVADs in just six months.
While Patterson faced some initial challenges adapting to life with his new heart, today he is feeling better than he has in years. He has since retired from the postal service and enjoying time reconnecting with his friends and family in the Chicago area. His heart donor and their family are never far from his mind.
“Like my sister says, someone died for you to live. So, I always had to keep that in the back of my mind,” said Patterson. “I would just say thank you for this blessing. I have a second chance at life now.”