Doctors in Canada have saved a young mother’s life by resorting to a quite strange solution – they removed her lungs for six days while she waited for a transplant.
In April, Melissa Benoit arrived at a Toronto hospital with a severe lung infection. Doctors soon realised that Benoit, who had been born with cystic fibrosis, had just hours to live, leading them to consider the unprecedented approach.
“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, the health authority responsible for the Toronto general hospital, told a news conference on Wednesday.
A recent bout with influenza had left the then 32-year-old fighting off respiratory failure, forcing doctors to keep her sedated and on a ventilator to help her breathe. “She got into a spiral from which her lungs were not going to recover,” said Ferguson. “Her only hope of recovery was a lung transplant.”
Benoit was put on a temporary life support device but her condition continued to deteriorate; the bacteria in her lungs became resistant to most antibiotics, sending her body into septic shock and her blood pressure dropping. One by one, her organs began shutting down.
Her team of doctors gathered together to weigh a bold solution they had contemplated for years but never carried out – the removal of both her lungs in hopes of eliminating the source of the bacterial infection.
The list of unknowns was long, from the risk of bleeding into the empty chest cavity to whether her blood pressure and oxygen levels could be sustained once her lungs were removed.
“What helped us is the fact that we knew it was a matter of hours before she would die,” said Dr Shaf Keshavjee, one of three surgeons who operated on Benoit. “That gave us the courage to say, if we’re ever going to save this woman, we’re going to do it now.”