Double-lung transplants save lives of patients with flipped lungs

Doctors at Northwestern Medicine recently transplanted normal lungs in two patients, successfully treating their separate lung disorders.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Dennis Deer (left) and Yahaira Vega (right).
Dennis Deer (left) and Yahaira Vega (right).

Northwestern Medicine/YouTube

27-year-old Yahaira Vega and 50-year-old Dennis Deer were previously suffering from different lung disorders, but recently, they received new lungs and can now breathe and laugh again, all thanks to the doctors at Northwestern Medicine. 

What makes these two patients and their treatment special is that, unlike the general population, their body organs are arranged in a reversed order. They have situs inversus, a rare medical condition in which the organs on the left side of the body are located on the right side, and vice versa (mirrored or reverse placement of organs). 

For instance, in a normal person, their liver is located on the upper right-hand side of the belly, but in a person with situs inversus their liver is found on the upper left-hand side.

“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,” said Dr. Catherine N. Myers, a pulmonologist at Northwestern Medicine.

The doctors successfully conducted double lung transplants on Yahaira and Dennis in April and May, respectively. Here is how the operations changed their lives:

Situs inversus makes lung transplant tricky

Since patients with situs inversus have their lungs placed in reverse order, doctors can’t just directly transplant lungs donated by normal people as the new lungs won’t fit perfectly inside the patient's thoracic cavity.

The arrangement of blood vessels, organ openings, and all other parts connected to the lungs inside their body is also in a reversed order. So in order to make the transplant successful, first, the doctors had to carefully make some complex modifications in their surgery. 

“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. It’s like taking a left sleeve off a shirt and then figuring out how to reattach it to the right side of the shirt instead,” said Dr. Ankit Bharat, thoracic surgery specialist at Northwestern Medicine.

However, despite all the challenges, the doctors decided to continue. They studied 3D scans of the chest cavity, modified the shape of the lungs a bit, and made the required changes in the vessels and structure of the cavity so that the organs could fit. 

Finally, on April 28, Yahaira received her new lungs. When asked what the first thing she planned to do with new lungs was, she told BBC, “Laugh.”

Throughout her life, Yahaira suffered from primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD), a lung disease due to which cilia (hair-like structures found on the surface of lungs) are not able to stop the pollutants, pathogens and other contaminants that enter our body along with air. 

This condition leads to excess mucus production, which eventually makes it hard for the patient to breathe. “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,” said 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,” She added.

The second lung transplant

Dennis Deer struggled to breathe because of interstitial lung disease (ILD), a medical condition that leads to scarring of the lungs, making them stiff. Over time, the lungs undergo irreversible damage and are unable to supply enough oxygen to the blood. 

“It was terrible. I would walk 10 steps and I was gasping for air,” said Dennis. Early this year, he was appointed as the Cook County Commissioner but due to his condition, he had to take his oath from the hospital room. 

Between March to May, Dennis remained on oxygen support but after receiving new lungs on May 22, he was breathing normally. 

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

Even though Denis and Yahaira are currently experiencing good health, it has only been a short period since their treatment, and the medical professionals are keeping an eye on them. 

One thing is sure, though, the lung transplant surgeries have given them a new life and a new purpose. Hopefully, it’ll serve the same purpose for many patients in the future.

You can read more about the double lung transplant procedures here.

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