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When Lung Cancer Took One Lung and COVID Took the Other, a Chicago Police Captain Was Left With Only One Option for Survival

Seeking a second opinion, Arthur “Art” Gillespie turned to Northwestern Medicine for a life-saving double-lung transplant procedure.

Lung Cancer | Image Credit: © Axel Kock - stock.adobe.com

Lung Cancer | Image Credit:

© Axel Kock - stock.adobe.com

For the first time at Northwestern Medicine, surgeons have successfully performed a double-lung transplant on a patient who had the one lung damaged from lung cancer and the other damaged by COVID-19. The patient, 56-year-old Arthur “Art” Gillespie of Chicago, has worked in law enforcement for nearly 30 years, most recently as a captain with the University of Chicago Police Department. When doctors at other health systems told Gillespie there was nothing more they could do for him, he turned to the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute, where surgeons pioneered lung transplantation for COVID-19 patients in the United States and using those same lessons, developed lung transplantation for select patients with advanced lung cancer through a first-of-its-kind clinical program called the Double Lung Replacement and Multidisciplinary Care (DREAM) Program.

“Arthur was in a unique situation because he got a severe case of COVID in March 2020 right around the same time he was diagnosed with lung cancer,” said Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and director of the Canning Thoracic Institute who performed Gillespie’s transplant. “When Arthur first came to see us in September 2023, even though he looked physically strong, he could barely speak a single sentence without getting short of breath or take a few steps before having to sit down. The pressure inside the lungs had also increased to a point that it was causing heart failure, and his only option for survival was a double-lung transplant.”

“Four years after the start of the pandemic, COVID still has an impact on patients, but in a different way,” said Rade Tomic, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of the Lung Transplant Program. “While lung transplants for acute damage from COVID is quite rare these days, we’re now starting to see patients who may have had moderate to severe cases of COVID coming in with signs of lung fibrosis. The scarring of the lungs gets more heightened in patients who recovered from COVID but get another respiratory infection like COVID, RSV or influenza because it compounds the original damage that COVID caused.”

When the pandemic started, Gillespie never imagined it would lead to him needing a double-lung transplant, or the impact the virus would have on his family.

“I lost my dad, uncle and cousin to COVID,” said Gillespie. “In February 2020, my dad and I went to visit my uncle in a nursing facility and by early March, we were all sick. I was hospitalized for 12 days with a high fever and cough, and during that time, they were taking scans of my lungs, which showed stage 1 lung cancer on my right lung. I had no symptoms of lung cancer, so in a way – because of COVID – we were able to catch the cancer early.”

After being discharged from the hospital, Gillespie started chemotherapy treatments and underwent surgery at another health system in November 2020 to have two-thirds of his right lung removed. His intent was to get better and return to work, but that never happened. For the next three years, Gillespie continued physical therapy treatments and worked out at his home gym, but his body was getting weaker, and he needed supplemental oxygen daily.

“Despite my best efforts, I could feel myself going backwards. My right remaining lung was damaged from lung cancer, and my left lung was damaged from COVID. My circumstances were exactly what the Canning Thoracic Institute was built for, and I knew I needed to seek a second opinion,” said Gillespie.

In September 2023, Gillespie had his first consultation at Northwestern Medicine, and by November he was listed for a double-lung transplant. On January 6, Gillespie received his new lungs at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and continues getting stronger every day. May 12-18 marks National Police Week, and while Gillespie still isn’t sure if or when he can return to work as a police captain, he hopes his story resonates with fellow officers to prioritize their health.

“My recovery from the double-lung transplant has been easier than my recovery from lung cancer surgery,” said Gillespie. “I want my story to serve as a lesson to others – especially those in law enforcement. When you’re a public servant, it’s easy to become distracted with the routine of the job. You’re used to putting others before your own health, but we have to be equally proactive and seek a second opinion when we know something isn’t right. A second opinion saved my life and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for Northwestern Medicine. The lung transplant team listened to my concerns, didn’t dismiss them, and gave me a sense of direction.”

“Arthur is a fighter. He had two major problems – lung cancer and COVID. Historically, both would be considered non-salvageable for lung transplantation, but we were able to treat both of those conditions with a double-lung transplant procedure,” said Dr. Bharat. “Despite being told ‘no’ by other doctors, Arthur had the courage and determination to keep searching for answers. I feel honored that we were able to help him since he spent so many years helping the community as a police captain.”

To date, the Canning Thoracic Institute has performed more than 45 lung transplants for COVID-19 patients, and more than 40 lung transplants for lung cancer patients. The Institute is currently the only clinical site in the nation offering this treatment for lung cancer patients without any other options.

Cancers of the lung are the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States in both men and women with more people dying of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. 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 transplant programs, as well as advanced therapies, visit nm.org.

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