CHICAGO — Before David “Davey” Bauer made history at Northwestern Medicine for a double lung transplant assisted by a pair of DD breast implants, he considered himself a fairly healthy guy.
Bauer, 34, spent his hours off from his landscaping job in De Soto, Missouri — near St. Louis — golfing, snowboarding and skateboarding. Cigarettes, he thought, were the only negative. A former smoker who went through a pack a day for four years, Bauer switched to vaping in 2014.
“I thought it seemed like a safer alternative,” Bauer said. “In hindsight, it seems like I should have just quit sooner … it’s not good to inhale anything in your lungs, other than oxygen, obviously.”
So when Bauer entered an urgent care clinic outside of St. Louis in April with the flu, he expected to recover fast.
“They were just like, ‘He’s got the flu, there’s a little bit of pneumonia in his lungs, here’s a Z-Pak, you’re good to go,’” Susan Gore, Bauer’s girlfriend of seven years, said at a news conference Wednesday. “And the next day he couldn’t walk.”
The flu had turned into a lung infection resistant to antibiotics. On April 17, Bauer entered the intensive care unit at Saint Louis University Hospital. He was moved onto a ventilator, then into a medically induced coma.
SLU Hospital refused to perform a lung transplant, saying Bauer was too sick to survive. After the hospital called the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute, Gore and Bauer relocated to Chicago in late May.
Bauer’s surgery was “uncharted territory” for the program, said Dr. Rade Tomic, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute Lung Transplant Program.
“We knew that to get him listed (for a transplant), we had to resolve the infection,” Tomic said. “The only way to resolve the infection was actually taking the lungs out.”
The surgical team removed Bauer’s infected lungs and cleaned out his chest cavity. To keep his body alive without lungs, the team needed to create channels for blood to flow in and out of his heart, said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and director of the Canning Thoracic Institute.
That’s where a pair of DD breast implants came in.
“We needed something to support his heart, and the DD breast implants seemed to be the perfect fit,” Bharat said Wednesday, as Bauer and Gore exchanged grins. “And frankly, they were the biggest we could get at the time.”
With Bauer’s heart stabilized between the implants, surgeons created an artificial lung outside Bauer’s body. The thoracic surgery team collaborated with plastic surgeons for a “crash course” on working with breast implants.
After the fact, Bauer said he was able to laugh at his clinical cleavage, adopting the nickname “Double-D Davey.”
“I didn’t know much of it until after the fact,” Bauer said Wednesday. “I thought it was awesome. Kind of funny.”
“I was like, ‘You get boob implants, but I don’t?’” Gore quipped.
Bauer was soon well enough to be listed for a double lung transplant. Two new lungs were available within 24 hours, and both were installed May 28, at which point the implants were removed.
“I feel so blessed,” Bauer said. “I mean, it’s incredible. I got a second chance at life.”
Bauer’s successful surgery was buoyed not only by the implants, but by good luck, Bharat said. It’s rare that two healthy lungs become available within 24 hours, and keeping Bauer stable between procedures — not to mention restarting his heart — was complicated.
Bharat had expected that the temporary circulation system, with Bauer’s heart nestled between the breast implants, could keep him alive for about a month.
“We were really surprised how fast he recovered once we took out his infected lungs,” Bharat said.
Bharat hopes the procedure can be used again in the future to stabilize people who need a lung transplant, but are too sick to receive new organs immediately.
“This is the first time, certainly, this technique was used,” Bharat said. “It has taught us a lot and hopefully can be used for other patients.”
Bauer was placed on dialysis while he recovered, and developed foot drop, a nerve compression impacting the movement of his foot. He also had myocarditis in the lining of his heart, and still speaks through a tracheostomy tube in his throat.
Still, Bauer is expected to make a full recovery — though he says he will never vape again.
“I feel a lot more like myself before all of this,” Bauer said. “I’m getting better every day.”
Tomic hopes that Bauer’s experience discourages patients from seeing vaping as a healthy substitute for cigarettes.
“We know that vaping can cause injury to the lungs, and also that flu can cause fatal outcomes, life-threatening infections,” Tomic said.
Bauer was discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in late September. He will remain in Chicago for another year in outpatient care.
A fundraiser supporting Bauer’s recovery has raised just over $34,000 to date.
Bauer said he misses watching the St. Louis Cardinals play at Busch Stadium. He and Gore have settled in River North for the time being, though, with dogs Penny and Bear.
“Home is where the heart is, and this is my heart,” Gore said. “So, this is where he is, and this is where we are.”