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Two surgeons in the operating room.
Two surgeons in the operating room.

Medical Advancement

Double-Lung Transplants on Patients With ‘Flipped Organs’

Surgeons Think Outside the Box for Patients With Situs Inversus

Situs inversus is a rare genetic condition in which some of the organs in the chest and abdomen develop in a reversed or mirrored image way from what is considered to be their normal positions. For the first time at Northwestern Medicine, surgeons have successfully performed double-lung transplants on two patients with this condition.

A diagram showing the normal positions of the heart, lungs, liver, spleen and stomach versus the positions of those organs in someone with situs inversus.

On April 28, 2023, Yahaira Vega of Elgin, Illinois, was the first to receive her transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Several weeks later, Dennis Deer of Chicago, Illinois, received his transplant. Both patients continue to recover well and have returned to their daily lives.  

Innovation in the Operating Room

“Situs inversus is a rare condition that affects nearly 1 in every 10,000 people and is often linked with other issues, but most people can lead normal lives,” says Catherine N. Myers, MD, pulmonologist with Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute. “It’s even more rare for these individuals to develop a lung disease to the point that they need a lung transplant.” 

“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,” adds Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of Thoracic Surgery and director of 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. 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.” 

Yahaira’s Story

Along with situs inversus, 27-year-old Yahaira 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, Yahaira’s condition worsened, and she was listed for a double-lung transplant in April 2023. Nine days later, Yahaira received her new lungs.   

“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,” explains Yahaira. “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.”

Dennis’ Story

Fifty-year-old Dennis had 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, 2023, Dennis spent the next two months hospitalized on supportive oxygen at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. On May 22, his transplant team found a match. 

“To be able to breathe again was incredible; I won’t ever take life for granted,” says Dennis. “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.” 

“I’m thrilled our team was able to help Dennis and Yahaira,” says Dr. Bharat. “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 (TTY: 711). 

Learn More About Northwestern Memorial Foundation

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