CHICAGO —Two patients both breathed a huge sigh of relief Monday after receiving new sets of lungs one month apart.

A double lung transplant is rare, now add to that the underlying genetic condition Dennis Deer and Yahaira Vega share that caused the organs in their chest to form in the reverse.

“To be able to breathe! I spent a lot of time not being able to breathe,” Deer said.

“Before I felt like a prisoner, like a bird in a cage,” Vega said.

“It’s rare enough to do one lung transplant for this condition, forget about doing two in the span of one month,” Northwestern Medicine thoracic surgeon Dr Ankit Bharat said.

It’s called Situs Inversus and the unusual anatomy posed challenges for Northwestern Medicine surgeons.

“The inside of the body is essentially a mirror image of itself, so the right lung is where the left lung should be, and the left lung is on the right side and then the heart is flipped,” Bharat said. “We have to tailor them to fit into the chest cavity. So that requires a lot of modifications making the surgery very complex.”

Deer developed what’s called interstitial lung disease. Inflammation and scarring made it difficult for him to breathe. The Cook County commissioner was sworn into office from a hospital room before receiving his life-saving transplant in May. 

“Throughout my entire process, I was wondering what it would feel like to take the first breath,” he said. “It was exhilarating! You almost have to learn how to breathe again because I had been breathing and using supplemental oxygen for about two years.”

Vega’s lungs were no longer able to remove germs and pollutants causing extreme mucus build up.

Dr Catherine Myers is a Northwestern Medicine pulmonologist.

“In one day the 27-year-old could fill an entire 32-ounce cup with mucus,” she said.

“It was difficult. Day-to-day it was hard mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually,” Vega said.

The 27-year-old received her transplant in April. Both complex procedures were a success.

“Now I can achieve things. Now I can strive to be something more than some sick, disabled girl who can’t get off the couch,” she said.

And now, another reason to celebrate, Deer and his surgeon share a birthday, August 7. 

One in 10,000 people have the rare organ reverse condition. The transplant team says the many covid lung transplants they performed helped prepare them for this moment.

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