She’s the first person to survive this incredible procedure.
Melissa Benoit is a nurse by trade, but she’d never heard of a surgery like this. Doctors removing both of a patient’s lungs? It had never been done before.
Melissa suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, pancreas, liver, kidneys and intestine. Three years ago, she came down with a lung infection that later spread to other parts of her body. Doctors prescribed antibiotics, but they weren’t working; a bout with the flu caused Melissa’s ribs to fracture from coughing too much.
In mid-March of 2016, the 32-year-old Burlington, Ontario native was taken to St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto. There, her health continued to deteriorate. Easter Sunday, 2016 is the last day she remembers.
In April of 2016, Melissa was moved again, this time to Toronto General Hospital’s Surgical Intensive Care Unit. She was hooked up to a ventilator, but the machine wasn’t strong enough to keep her lungs from filling up with blood and pus, leaving her breathless and gasping. Melissa desperately needed a lung transplant.
Even though Melissa lay dying in that Toronto hospital, she didn’t qualify to receive an organ donation. Infection had turned her blood septic and people in sepsis are not allowed to be included on the list of prospective transplants.
The first bilateral pneumonectomy ever performed:
Doctors know that removing the source of an infection is often the best way to treat it. And the surgical team at TGH was more than qualified to perform an experimental lung surgery: In 1983, the hospital successfully executed the first single lung transplant and double lung transplant. In fact, the surgical team had been toying with the idea of attempting a bilateral pneumonectomy years before Melissa even arrived.
The doctors hoped that by removing both of Melissa’s lungs, her sepsis would clear up, allowing her body to accept a transplant. And so, in the middle of the night in April 2016, Melissa’s family and husband agreed to let doctors perform a never-before-tried surgery.
The surgery that almost didn’t happen:
It took 13 doctors and 9 hours to successfully remove both of Melissa’s lungs. The results were immediate; within hours of the surgery, her condition improved significantly.
Melissa spent six days in a medically induced coma in the ICU, waiting to receive a double lung transplant. During this time, her body was attached to a Novalung, which pumps out blood and filters in fresh oxygen, before pumping the blood back into the body.
Melissa’s life-saving surgery almost didn’t happen; while she was unconscious in the ICU, doctors became concerned she was not responding to painful stimuli. They worried she did not have the brain function necessary to proceed with the transplant. As Melissa tells CBC Radio’s “As It Happens”:
“My mom actually tried to get me to stick out my tongue because I wasn’t strong enough to squeeze hands … So, she kept yelling in my ears, ‘Melissa, if you can hear us, stick out your tongue. Just stick it out.”
Her mother pleaded with her for 20 minutes before Melissa was able to move her tongue slightly. This was enough for the doctors to proceed with the surgery.
What this means for cystic fibrosis patients:
Melissa’s cystic fibrosis cannot attack her newly transplanted lungs, making this a significant step for CF patients, many of whom die from infected lungs. The surgery, however, is not a cure for the disease; Melissa’s CF still affects her genetics, leaving her digestive system vulnerable.
Before her surgery, Melissa fought to breathe. She says that prior to her transplant, “It was always a struggle. It was always met with resistance. It always felt like I was breathing through a straw.”
Now, Melissa says breathing feels “brand new.” Her surgery has given her a second shot at a normal life — after going through rehabilitation, Melissa is able to perform tasks that once seemed impossible, like walking or taking her 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, to school.
Melissa’s story would not be possible without organ donation: 48% of all US adults are registered as organ donors (for Canadians, that number is only 20%.) In 2015, lungs were the fourth most popular transplant, following the kidney, liver and heart.
Melissa sums it up best, saying simply, “Without those donor lungs, I wouldn’t be here today.”