'Am I dreaming or am I alive?' Thanksgiving has special meaning for this double transplant recipient
In August, as Patricio Collera was wheeled into the operating room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a rare and complicated surgery, he told his wife, Evelyn, it might be the last time she would see him alive.
When he awoke after the seven-hour procedure with a new liver and new right lung, Collera wasn't sure where he was.
"Am I dreaming or am I alive?" he asked.
Thanksgiving Day will mark three months since the 63-year-old Vernon Hills resident learned the organs he needed would be available.
Although he was listed for a double-lung liver transplant, only one lung was available. Because of Collera's desperate need, the arrival of an excellent match, and similar outcomes for single versus double lung transplants, doctors encouraged him to undergo the transplant with what was available.
It was a good choice.
Collera and his doctors shared the story Wednesday of how his grim outlook turned to cause for celebration this holiday season.
A retired nurse who worked two years at Northwestern Memorial during his 25-year career, Collera knows he was risking his life by opting for the rare procedure over the summer. It was the health system's first successful combined lung-liver transplant, the only one in Illinois and one of just 10 in the U.S. this year.
"They are holding hands and happy to be in the same part of my body," Collera said of the donated organs. He doesn't know who the donor was, but he thanked "whoever you are" for "the perfect liver and a perfect lung."
About 100 lung and liver specialists, anesthesiologists, nurses, donor team members and others were involved in the transplant process, with as many as 20 doctors and other medical professionals in the operating room at any given time, said Dr. Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine's Canning Thoracic Institute.
The rare procedure had no margin of error, he said. Speed was critical, as the second transplant couldn't happen until the first was done. The lung was first.
"We had to work twice as fast," Bharat said. "It's an elegant and closely coordinated dance."
Transplant is the "ultimate team sport," said Dr. Satish Nadig, chief of organ transplantation at Northwestern Medicine. He said it also is one of the only fields that depends on the humanity of the donor, in life or in death, to save someone else.
Collera's path to the transplant surgery began after he developed a bad cough in 2017. He was diagnosed with a lung disease and nonalcoholic liver disease, causing scarring of the lungs and liver cirrhosis, according to Northwestern.
By 2019, he needed oxygen 24 hours a day and stopped working as a line nurse. He required 50 feet of tubing and oxygen tanks wherever he went, and because one tank lasted only 30 minutes, he needed two just to go to the grocery store.
"My life was miserable," he said,
In February, while being evaluated for a lung transplant, tests showed Collera's liver was 75% damaged and he needed a new one. He contacted transplant centers across the country and was told it couldn't be done because of his age or their teams' lack of experience.
"I was indeed hopeless after being outright rejected by what I call big-shot hospitals across the U.S.," Collera said.
But Northwestern "put me on a pedestal."
"They thought I was the perfect candidate," he said.
Collera was listed for a double-lung and liver transplant on Aug. 15. Nine days later he learned the organs were available. He spent two weeks hospitalized after surgery, but his prognosis is good, and it's "highly unlikely" the other lung will need to be replaced, according to Bharat.
Aside from avoiding alcohol, Collera is without dietary limitations, doctors said.
He'll celebrate Thanksgiving with his wife and have a virtual dinner with their six children and four grandchildren.
"I'm grateful and happy I'm home," he said Wednesday.
He also had a message for the donor.
"I promise that I will not waste (the) lung and liver. I will live a good life. Do something with my life," he said. "Because without your organs, I wouldn't be here anymore."