First heart transplant through VA-Northwestern Medicine collaboration goes to Navy vet

Dwayne Patterson served aboard the USS Carl Vinson. His heart transplant was at Northwestern Medicine, which operates a clinic at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago to treat advanced heart failure.

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Dwayne Patterson, a Navy veteran, was the first patient to receive a heart transplant through a collaboration between Northwestern Medicine and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Dwayne Patterson, a Navy veteran, was the first patient to receive a heart transplant through a collaboration between Northwestern Medicine and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Provided/Northwestern Medicine

Dwayne Patterson is proud of his time in the Navy, and is happy that this year, he can attend a Veterans Day event somewhere near his Park Forest home.

That wasn’t the situation last year, when congestive heart failure left him unable to walk more than a few feet without feeling exhausted.

Now, Patterson, 58, has a new heart — the first person to get a heart transplant through a collaboration between the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Northwestern Medicine.

He’d been diagnosed with congestive heart failure in late 2022 in Minneapolis, where he had an office job with the U.S. Postal Service.

He’d started with the Postal Service in California a few years after his discharge from the Navy. He’d enlisted in 1978, serving aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, traveling to Thailand, the Philippines and Hong Kong, among other places. He called his four years of service one of his biggest accomplishments.

Patterson had moved to Minneapolis because of a promotion. Then, about a year and a half after the move, he realized something was wrong. He would feel short of breath after walking a few feet. Many times, almost unable to breathe, he went home early.

Finally, during one such incident, he drove himself to an urgent care location. They sent him to an emergency room, where he suffered 13 ministrokes, leading to a three-week hospital stay.

Ministrokes, he said, are “just a warning sign for, if you don’t take care of yourself, the big one is gonna come.”

It wasn’t long before he was diagnosed, and then told he needed a transplant.

It was a shock.

“I was just so excited, moving to a new state ... and then that’s when it’s like all of a sudden out of nowhere,” Patterson said.

He decided to move to the Chicago area to be closer to his sister. And that’s how he ended up at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave., where he met Dr. Sarah Chuzi.

She’s a cardiologist who works at both Jesse Brown and Northwestern Medicine, which had collaborated to open a clinic at the VA medical center to treat advanced heart failure in veterans.

“Just right off, we hit it off. ... just an amazing person, and the whole staff there was very amazing,” he said.

The collaboration helps fast-track care for veterans, said Dr. Sarah Unterman, the chief of staff at Jesse Brown. Otherwise, Patterson would have been referred elsewhere within the VA — and might have had to travel to another state — or to a hospital in the community, Unterman said.

Patterson said he was grateful to be able to stay near family, since he wouldn’t have been able to handle the surgery and healing on his own.

“It would have probably been impossible,” he said.

Chuzi said working in a clinic at Jesse Brown means she can build relationships with patients, gain their trust and help them navigate the medical system.

“I give my cellphone number out to probably too many of them. But I think that that’s really important to let them know I am available for them,” she said.

Chuzi and a team of Northwestern Medicine and VA clinicians evaluated Patterson for a heart transplant, and he was added to the transplant waiting list in March. Too sick to go home, Patterson was admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to await a donor.

Dwayne Patterson, a Navy veteran, was diagnosed in 2022 with congestive heart failure and told he needed a heart transplant.

Dwayne Patterson, a Navy veteran, was diagnosed in 2022 with congestive heart failure and told he needed a heart transplant. He received one in 2023 through a collaboration between the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Northwestern Medicine.

Provided/Northwestern Medicine

The call to tell him a donor heart was available came in April. Nauseous from medication, he almost didn’t answer the phone.

When he awakened from surgery, Patterson said, he still felt like he couldn’t breathe. But by the night after his operation, he was walking.

Now, after months of healing, he’s feeling “100% much better” — and, finally, looking forward to taking part in Veterans Day festivities.

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