Northwestern Medicine surgeons perform rare ‘flipped organ’ double lung transplants for 2, including county commissioner

Situs inversus is found in just 1 in 10,000 people, and it’s even rarer for those with it to need lung transplants. Northwestern Medicine doctors performed the surgery twice in a month.

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Yahaira Vega (left) and Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, who were born with situs inversus — or “flipped organs” in their chest and abdomen, underwent double lung transplants at Northwestern Medicine.

Yahaira Vega (left) and Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, who were born with situs inversus — or “flipped organs” in their chest and abdomen, underwent double lung transplants at Northwestern Medicine.

Provided by Northwestern Medicine

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer couldn’t breathe easy during last year’s campaign season.

Not because his reelection was ever in doubt — he netted 88% of the vote in his Chicago district — but because the West Side official’s lungs were failing, to the point that he ended up taking his third oath of office in a hospital room last December.

“It was scary,” Deer told the Sun-Times. “The doctors were telling me doom and gloom. They didn’t know if I was going to make it, but I believed in God.”

After an agonizing wait for an organ donor match, and an incredibly complex double lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital that was complicated even further by a rare genetic condition, Deer will be able to breathe easier at his next potential swearing-in — not that he’s thinking about his political future just yet.

“I am just taking in every moment to be grateful, to not take any day for granted,” he said. “It is a blessing to be able to breathe again.”

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, who received a double-lung transplant earlier this year, is pictured at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, who received a double lung transplant this year, is pictured at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Provided by Northwestern Medicine

That blessing is the result of the latest exciting first for Northwestern Medicine’s lung transplant team, which last spring performed double transplants for Deer and Elgin resident Yahaira Vega, both of whom were born with situs inversus — or “flipped organs” in their chest and abdomen.

With the lungs, heart and other vitals in the mirror image of those in a typical patient — a condition seen in 1 in 10,000 people — surgeons had “to come up with some technical modifications” to make donated lungs fit for Deer and Vega, according to Dr. Ankit Bharat, Northwestern Medicine’s chief of thoracic surgery.

“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,” Bharat said.

Dr. Ankit Bharat, Northwestern Medicine’s chief of thoracic surgery.

Dr. Ankit Bharat, Northwestern Medicine’s chief of thoracic surgery.

Provided by Northwestern Medicine

Most people born with situs inversus lead normal lives, often not discovering they have it until getting checked out by a doctor for something else.

“It’s even more rare for these individuals to develop a lung disease to the point that they need a lung transplant,” said Dr. Catherine Myers, a Northwestern Medicine pulmonologist.

Beyond flipped organs, Vega, 27, was born with primary ciliary dyskinesia, another rare disorder that prevents tiny structures in the airway from removing germs, resulting in mucus buildup — and making her progressively more sick.

“It really feels or felt like I was a baby again. You know, like a very adolescent child unable to regulate anything going on in her body,” Vega said.

Yahaira Vega.

Yahaira Vega.

Provided by Northwestern Medicine

The highly rare one-two genetic punch landed her on the double-lung transplant list in April. Vega became the first situs inversus patient ever to receive the procedure at Northwestern on April 28.

“I was never able to just be, like, in the moment. Whether that’d be crying or laughing because, you know, my mucus, my cough would get in the way,” Vega said. “But now with the new lungs, I’m just like looking to when my sternum is going to be at its strongest and finally have that moment of like, ‘Oh my God, this is so funny. I can laugh, and it’s not going to be an issue.’”

At the same time, Deer was hospitalized on supportive oxygen while waiting for a donor match.

Situs inversus had never slowed him down much — he ran marathons in 2004 and 2007 — until other conditions started popping up over the last decade, including polymyositis, or muscle inflammation, and more recently, interstitial lung disease, which scars the lungs — all exacerbated by a bout with COVID-19 in May 2022.

“I couldn’t walk 10 steps without gasping for air,” said Deer, who turned 51 on Monday, when he met Vega for the first time during a news conference at Northwestern Memorial.

He had to lose more than 100 pounds — no refined sugars, no salt and, toughest of all, no Snickers, Deer says — before getting on the list for new lungs at the end of March. A donor match finally came through in the early hours of May 22.

After more than eight hours of surgery, the commissioner woke up feeling “a peace that came over me.”

“Just being able to consciously take a breath. That’s what I was always looking for,” Deer said. “I felt like I was breathing like a baby.”

Easing back into normal, comfortable life — one of his first outings was attending a Beyonce concert at Soldier Field last month with his wife, Barbara — Deer said his priority is raising awareness for organ donation and increasing access to transplant health care.

“I got my second chance at life,” he said. “I want to show other people waiting for transplants that it can be done. There is hope, and we need to work to make it available for everyone who needs it.”

Transplant surgeons Ankit Bharat and Sam Kim in an operating room.

Transplant surgeons Ankit Bharat and Sam Kim in an operating room.

Provided by Northwestern Medicine

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