Doctors in Canada have taken desperate measures in the face of a desperate situation: They removed a young mother’s lungs for six days while she waited for a transplant.

The procedure was thought to be a world first - a drastic solution amid the urgent need for a lung transplant.

Last-Ditch Procedure

In April last year, 32-year-old Melissa Benoit was rushed to a hospital in Toronto for a severe lung infection, with doctors realizing soon enough that she only had hours to live. She was suffering respiratory failure from a recent case of influenza, getting into a spiral from which “her lungs were not going to recover,” recounted Dr. Niall Ferguson in a media conference.

While on temporary life support, Benoit came within an inch of her life. The bacteria in her lungs were largely antibiotic-resistant, sending her into septic shock and lowering her blood pressure dramatically. Her organs also started to shut down.

The team of doctors came up with a daring plan to save her, which was to remove both lungs to eliminate the source of infection. Many unintended consequences were anticipated, including her plunging oxygen and blood pressure levels.

Ferguson, part of the University Health Network managing the Toronto hospital, shared they proceeded with the difficult discussion despite not having seen any recourse of that kind done before.

Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, director of the lung transplant program, was one of the three surgeons who handled Benoit and part of the 13-member team that performed the nine-hour procedure to remove the badly infected lungs.

“[W]e could barely pry it out of her chest,” Keshavjee said of each heavy, rock-like lung they extricated.

Staying Alive

The patient was supported by two machines, namely a Novalung that filled her blood with oxygen while taking carbon dioxide out, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for helping the heart pump the blood throughout the body.

In about 20 minutes post-lung removal, Benoit’s blood pressure stabilized and she could be left on the pumps that offer the circulation, the surgeon added.

In five to six days, donor lungs matched her blood type and size, so they proceeded with the transplant, which turned out to be successful. From there, Benoit began to recover her strength after months spent in the hospital and muscles so spent that she could not even lift her hand, sit up, or stand.

She was also left with damaged kidneys but is hoping to recover enough to receive a kidney transplant from her own mother.

Benoit said it took her a while to realize everything that happened.

“You really come from the brink of death to back living at home,” she shared, saying she is happy and grateful to be finally home.

The team’s report was discussed in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

In what appeared as a Christmas miracle, 5-month-old Daniel McCabe from Wisconsin found an organ match in 40 minutes and successfully underwent liver transplant last December.

The short wait that Daniel, who suffered biliary atresia, had to go through was quite unusual as the typical waiting period for a liver lasts 86 days for kids and 149 days for adults.

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