Northwestern Medicine surgeons perform double-lung transplants on two patients born with “flipped organs” in their chest and abdomen
Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer and 27-year-old Yahaira Vega received the transplants within a few weeks of each other, marking the first time the surgeries were performed at Northwestern Medicine
CHICAGO – For the first time at Northwestern Medicine, surgeons have successfully performed double-lung transplants on two patients with situs inversus, a rare genetic condition where the organs in the chest and abdomen develop in a reversed or mirrored image from their normal positions. Yahaira Vega of Elgin, Ill., was the first to receive her transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on April 28, and several weeks later, Dennis Deer of Chicago, Ill., received his transplant on May 22. Both patients continue to recover at optimal pace and have returned to their daily lives.
“Situs inversus is a rare condition that affects nearly one in every 10,000 people and is often linked with other issues, but most people can lead normal lives. Often, they may not even know they have the condition until seeking health care for unrelated conditions. It’s even more rare for these individuals to develop a lung disease to the point that they need a lung transplant,” said Catherine Myers, MD, pulmonologist with the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute.
“It’s rare enough to perform a double-lung transplant on one patient with situs inversus, let alone two patients in less than a month at the same health system,” added Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and director of the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute. “When performing the surgery, it’s an interesting dilemma because the inside of the body is essentially a mirror image of what it normally would be. The heart is typically on the left side, but with situs inversus, it’s on the right side. The right lung is on the left side, and the left lung is on the right side. So, when we take the old lungs out, we have to put new lungs in from a donor with ‘normal organs.’ This is more challenging, because the new lungs need to fit into a chest cavity that’s a mirror image, so we had to come up with some technical modifications in order to do it.”
Along with situs inversus, 27-year-old Vega was born with another rare disorder called primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD), which prevents the tiny, hairlike structures in the airway from removing germs and pollutants, causing excess mucus to build up. Several years ago, Vega started getting progressively sicker and was listed for a double-lung transplant in April. After spending nine days on the transplant waiting list, Vega received her new lungs at Northwestern Memorial on April 28.
“Before my transplant, I would get a large, 32-ounce cup and completely fill it with mucus in one day. I felt inadequate and hopeless. In many ways, I was like a baby again, sleeping all the time and unable to regulate anything going on in my body,” explained Vega. “With my new lungs, I have so much energy and I’m able to laugh again. I’m thankful for my donor, their family and my incredible transplant team. Because of them, I have my life back.”
The feelings were mutual for then 50-year-old Deer who developed interstitial lung disease (inflammation and scarring of the lungs) due to polymyositis (muscle inflammation and weakness). In December 2022, the husband, father and psychologist was sworn in as Cook County Commissioner from his hospital room as he struggled with shortness of breath. Listed for new lungs on March 31, Deer spent the next several months hospitalized on supportive oxygen at Northwestern Memorial before receiving the call on May 22 that doctors had found a match.
“To be able to breathe again was incredible; I won’t ever take life for granted,” said Deer. “I can’t stop thinking about others who don’t have this opportunity, and I want to spend the next chapter of my life focusing on transplant awareness and organ donation. I want to make sure we can get those in need of transplantation to the right place at the right time.”
On Monday, Aug. 7, Vega and Deer will meet one another for the first time during a press conference at Northwestern Memorial. August 7 also happens to mark Deer’s 51st birthday – a date he coincidentally shares with the surgeon who helped perform his lifesaving transplant.
“I’ve never met anyone else with situs inversus, so I’m very much looking forward to meeting Yahaira. And, on top of that, to be able to celebrate my birthday with Dr. Bharat – well, I’m ecstatic about it,” said Deer.
“The surgery was rewarding, but to have the Cook County Commissioner on your birthday guest list takes it to the next level,” said Dr. Bharat. “I’m thrilled our team was able to help Dennis and Yahaira. We’re known for taking on some of the toughest lung transplant cases, and it’s a testament to the life-changing work being done at the Canning Thoracic Institute. Our goal is to help as many patients as possible reach their next birthday and beyond.”
Patients interested in being evaluated for a lung transplant can contact the referral line at 844.639.5864. For more information about Northwestern Medicine’s lung transplant program, as well as advanced therapies, visit nm.org.