Some of the most skilled surgeons in Chicago broke barriers in the pandemic and beyond to breathe new life into patients.
But the latest patient created a new challenge, forcing doctors with Northwestern Medicine to perform a lung transplant using a breast implant.
It was a first for Dr. Ankit Bharat, one of the most experienced thoracic surgeons in the United States. But why the double-D breast implants?
“We were looking for the biggest thing that would fit in there, the chest cavity, and he has a big chest cavity, so hence the double-Ds,” Bharat said.
That was the strategy – breast implants — to help save the life of 34-year-old Davey Bauer. A smoker since the age of 21, Bauer traded cigarettes for vaping in 2014.
“I thought it would be a safer alternative and in hindsight, it seems like I should have quit sooner,” Bauer said.
Dr. Rade Tomic, a pulmonologist with Northwestern Medicine, spoke about the dangers of vaping.
“Vaping is very bad for the lungs and we know that vaping can cause injury to the lungs and also, to emphasize that flu can cause fatal outcomes can be life-threatening infection and that is why we need to get a flu vaccine every year,” Tomic said.
In April, the St. Louis-area landscaper and active skateboarder faced a sudden health spiral — he was short of breath and diagnosed with Influenza A, which quickly progressed to a serious lung infection resistant to antibiotics. He was placed on a form of life support called ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) – a machine that takes over heart and lung function – at a local hospital.
“Davey’s lungs were heavily infected. They started to liquefy,” Tomic said. “When you look at the chest x-ray, there is nothing there. The lungs were completely filled with pus.”
His whole body infected by the diseased lungs, Bauer was too sick at the time to qualify for the organ waiting list. In May, he was transferred to Northwestern Medicine, where doctors plotted an unorthodox treatment plan they hoped would make him healthy enough for new lungs.
“The only way we could resolve the infection was to take the lungs out,” Tomic said. “There was no other way.”
In their place, Bharat tucked large breast implants into Bauer’s chest cavity.
“We want to thank our plastic surgeons for giving us a rapid-fire crash course on breast implants,” Bharat said. “We felt like with the lungs taken out, we needed something to support his heart and the double-D implants seemed to be the perfect fit.”
Susan Gore, Bauer’s girlfriend and caretaker, said she was surprised by the plan.
“It really did boggle my mind, but it made sense he needed his heart centered,” she said.
“I didn’t know much of it until after the fact, but I thought it was awesome and kind of funny,” Bauer added.
With just the gel-filled placeholders, he still needed a way to breathe.
“With the lungs out, there is no way for the blood to get to the heart and the rest of the body, so we had to put artificial conduits in different chambers of the heart that allowed the heart to pump normally,” Bharat said.
The innovative procedure bought Bauer time – his doctors estimated he had about one month to live without lungs in his body.
“Very rapidly, his body started to clear the infection, he improved very quickly and then we were able to list him,” Bharat said. “Within 24 hours, he got an organ offer and on May 28, we took him back to the operating room and implanted the new ones.”
In the aftermath, Bauer said he feels blessed
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I got a second chance at life.”
The Northwestern team hopes their innovative approach opens doors for many patients with no other options.
Patients interested in being evaluated for a lung transplant can contact the referral line at 844.639.5864. For more information about Northwestern Medicine’s lung transplant program, as well as advanced therapies, visit nm.org.