Woman lives for 6 days without lungs while waiting for transplant

(WSVN) - A Canadian woman who doctors believed was just hours away from death underwent a drastic surgery, where surgeons removed both of her lungs as she waited for a life-saving transplant.

It had never been attempted before, since the machine used to function as the patient’s lungs is usually connected just long enough for the transplant surgery itself. But 32-year-old Melissa Benoit survived for 6 days with both of her lungs gone, Fox News reports.

Benoit was born with cystric fibrosis, an inherited disorder that affects mucus-producing cells, causing damage to patients’ lungs, intestines, and other vital organs. Benoit had been suffering for years with lung infections, but a bout of the flu triggered such bad coughing that she fractured her ribs.

Doctors admitted Benoit to a Toronto hospital, expecting to switch her antibiotics. But the bacteria in her lungs had become resistant to most treatment, and she ended up in the ICU with septic shock as her organs began shutting down.

“We knew it was a matter of hours before she would die,” said Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, one of Benoit’s surgeons. “That gave us the courage to say, ‘If we’re ever going to save this woman, we’re going to do it now.’”

Her physicians said Benoit was literally drowning in the blood and pus that filled her lungs, and a traditional ventilator would not be able to keep her alive.

Surgeons knew her only chance of survival was to remove the source of infection: both lungs.

“It was a difficult discussion because when we’re talking about something that had never to our knowledge been done before, there were a lot of unknowns,” Dr. Niall Ferguson of the University Health Network said in a news conference.

Her husband Chris gave doctors the go-ahead to operate.

A team of 13 doctors and nurses operated on Benoit for nine hours, removing both lungs and connecting an artificial lung to her heart. That device worked with an Extra-Cororeal Lung Support machine, a temporary device that helps keep patients alive while waiting for transplants. The machine performs a lung’s usual functions, draining blood from the body to oxygenate it and remove carbon dioxide before pumping the cleaned blood back to the patient.

Doctors said that Benoit start showing signs of improvement within minutes of having her lungs removed. Her sepsis began to clear, which meant she was able to qualify for a transplant.

A pair of donor lungs became available six days later, and Benoit says the difference is “like night and day.”

“I’ve never had the experience of breathing before,” she said. “I was always feeling like I was breathing through a straw.”

Her doctors said cystic fibrosis will not recur in her transplanted lungs, but the disease can still affect other organs in her body.

After the life-saving surgery, Benoit has undergone extensive therapy, and is learning to walk without a cane. She says she’s thankful for getting a second chance at life to be with her 3-year-old daughter.

“You really come from the brink of death to back living at home,” she said. “But I’m just so grateful, so happy to be home.”

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