Medical mysteries or the Midwest were never a part of Derek Dunn’s original plan. Raised in California’s beautiful San Francisco Bay, the Executive Director of Information Systems Infrastructure and Architecture at IU Health, initially wanted to follow in his physician parents footsteps. “My father was an interventional radiologist and my mom was a pulmonologist. I grew up around medicine and always had a desire to be a part of healthcare,” he recalls.
Things changed for him, however, shortly after high school. “I had gotten into a good school, and was ready to go when I just realized I had a greater native love for technology.”
It was a decision that would change his destiny.
Upon graduating from Brigham Young University years later, with a focus in accounting and information management systems, Dunn first moved to Minneapolis. “I spent several years there ultimately accepting a number of different healthcare-related positions. I worked for medical device manufacturers like St. Jude Medical as well as companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield,” he says.
His ultimate aspiration, however, was to work for an actual healthcare system. So, when a recruiter called Dunn about an opportunity at Indiana University Health to run their Decision Support and Analytics department, he was interested. “I’d never been to Indiana before. It was a new experience,” he recalls.
When the role was ultimately offered, Dunn accepted and moved his wife and two children to Carmel. Dunn happily headed to work. Unfortunately, he says it wasn’t long before his health began to take a downward turn. “At that point (in 2014), I had not been feeling well for years. I always felt sick yet no one could ever diagnose my problem. First, I was told I had osteoporosis (due to a steady loss of bone density and some fractured vertebrae). As time went on, the bone problems transitioned to blood problems and my doctors were afraid I was headed toward myelodysplastic syndrome. We had even identified a bone marrow donor by the time my cell counts leveled off, but I was left with some significant anemia. Overall, I spent two years traveling back and forth to the Mayo Clinic for potential answers but nothing concrete was found. It was frustrating,” Dunn says.
By the time he and his family headed to the Hoosier state, Dunn says he had gotten to a point where he’d made peace with the issue. “It was a medical mystery. I finally just thought, I have some problems, but I’m coping and I will have to manage them for the rest of my life.”
However six months into his job at IU Health, Dunn says he started having trouble breathing. “Tests were run but nothing could be identified. Finally, during a routine visit with his endocrinologist (to get a check on osteoporosis) for some routine tests, Dr. Teresa Guise, Dunn says, saved his life. “She noticed a small but concerning trend on the battery of blood tests she had ordered, so she sent me down to the hepatology unit. Ten minutes later, a wide-eyed doctor walked in saying ‘did you know that your liver is failing?’” he recalls.
According to Dr. Guise that day, bone-related issues (like osteoporosis and brittle bone disease) can be caused by liver issues. Dunn’s liver dysfunction had also damaged his lungs. “Portal hypertension had caused a right-to-left shunt in my lungs, making it difficult to breathe,” he says.
Dunn was immediately placed on a transplant waiting list to receive a new liver. “This was in late 2015 and by January 2016, I was in horrible shape, requiring a concentrator and 6 liters of oxygen just to keep going. Thankfully, I received my liver transplant on Valentine’s Day of 2016.”
Within two months, Dunn says the symptoms began reversing themselves—and three months later, he headed back to work. One of his biggest takeaways: “I came to work at IU Health because I wanted to work with people who focused on patient care. Being in the intensive care unit for two weeks gave me a birds-eye view of what our health system is all about. My role requires me to be responsible for all of IU Health’s data systems, so all networks, computers, printers, etc. Watching the nurses, physicians and residents thoughtfully work and viewing their experiences and challenges with these things provided me with a unique perspective—valuable insights that I keep in mind when I’m on the job,” he says.
The bottom line, he says, “I’m truly grateful for the folks who helped me and I appreciate all the system’s teams for their work and dedication. I owe my life to them. I’m thankful for every single day.”
— By Sarah Burns