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Commissioner Deer “blessed by God” to survive rare double-lung transplant

Photo caption: Dr. Ankit Bharat and Commissioner Dennis Deer

Saying he is a “blessed” man, Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, one of two patients to receive a successful rare double-lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on his birthday, Monday, August 7, said he will become an ambassador for organ donation.

Deer, who turned 51 on that date, said he will work with Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias and his organ/tissue donor registry program because he and the other double-lung transplant patient, Yahaira Vega, 27, from Elgin, Illinois, are living examples of why people should consider organ donation.

Deer and Vega made comments during a Northwestern Hospital Zoom press conference, along with Drs. Ankit Bharat, Chief of Thoracic Surgery and Director of the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute, and Catherine Myers, pulmonologist with the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute.

According to Dr. Bharat, Deer’s double-lung surgery was performed by Northwestern Medicine surgeons on Monday, May 22. Vega’s surgery was the first to be performed on Friday, April 28.

Bharat said it was the first time Northwestern Medicine surgeons were successful in performing the double-lung transplants on two patients who suffered from situs inversus. It is a rare genetic condition, where the organs in the chest and abdomen develop in a reversed or mirrored image from their normal positions.

In describing situs inversus, Dr. Myers said the rare condition affects almost one in every 10,000 people and that it is “often linked with other issues.” She said most recipients lead normal lives, but she added, “It’s even more rare for these individuals to develop a lung disease to the point that they need a lung transplant.”

Pointing out another rarity, Bharat said, “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.”

In describing how the inside of their bodies looked, Bharat said, “The heart is typically on the left side, but with situs inversus, it’s on the right side.” He clarified, saying, “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’.”

And, as if this condition isn’t challenging enough surgically, Bharat said 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.”

Northwestern surgeons had an even greater challenge with Vega, who was born with yet another rare disorder, primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD). This abnormality prevents the tiny, hairlike structures in the airway from removing germs and pollutants, which cause excess mucus to build up, according to Myers.

“Before my transplant, I would get a large, 32-ounce cup and completely fill it with mucus in one day,” said Vega. “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.

“With my new lungs, I have so much energy, and I’m able to laugh again and make people laugh. I’m thankful for my donor, their family and my incredible transplant team. Because of them, I have my life back,” said Vega.

Bharat said Deer’s condition worsened, blaming it on his development of interstitial lung disease, an inflammation and scarring of the lungs due to polymyositis, or muscle inflammation and muscle weakness.

But no matter how sick he was, Deer told the Chicago Crusader, though short of breath, “I never stopped working.” Last January, Deer, then 50, was sworn in as a Cook County Commissioner.

He is a psychologist, married to his high school sweetheart Barbara, and the father of three, 21-year-old twins, seniors at Northern Illinois University, and a daughter, 17, a senior at Westinghouse High School.

Deer was listed for new lungs on March 31 and spent several months hospitalized on supportive oxygen at Northwestern before his successful May 22 double-lung surgery.

In an interview with the Chicago Crusader, Deer said he learned that he needed a double-lung transplant about a year-and-a-half ago. He said he was born with flipped organs, with situs inversus. “My heart is more to the right, and my organs switched over to accommodate,” Deer explained.

When asked how he felt about his condition, Deer said, “I found out about that when I was four years old. My mother said they wanted to run all kinds of tests. She didn’t allow them to do it.

“She said I was no different than anybody else and that it was important for me to understand that everybody else’s heart may be on the wrong side, but mine is on the right side,” recalled Deer. “I’ve never been treated, and I led a normal life, and it’s been fantastic.”

However, with asthma prevalent in his family, Deer said that is what triggered the need for a double-lung transplant. “I got asthma late in life, and it caused me to get lung disease and other things.”

Before he could have the double-lung transplant, Deer said the doctor told him he had to lose 100 pounds. At the time, he told the Chicago Crusader, he weighed 320 pounds. He is 5-feet-7-inches tall. The surgery, he said, “saved my life and gave me equality of life. I am grateful to God for that. I was at the point when I would walk 10 steps, and I was out-of-breath.”

Deer says as a psychologist, he knows how to avoid depression. “For me, that’s working and spending time with my family. I focus on the things that I love to do and through the grace of God, that got me through.”

Additionally, Deer said, he had to change his eating habits. He gave up eating three Snickers candy bars a day. “That was my fetish,” he confessed. He also gave up fried foods, opting instead for baked foods and more lettuce. “It was a 180-degree switch for the better because the first wealth is health,” he stated.

At the conclusion of the Zoom press conference both Deer and Vega were presented gift bags containing 32-ounce mugs with the Northwestern Medicine logo on them “because Vega used to fill up a 32-ounce cup with mucus before the transplant. Now that she no longer has to do that, we got them nice 32-ounce cups,” said Jenny Nowatzke, manager, national media relations for Northwestern Medicine.

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