Life Without Lungs: How One Woman Overcame the Odds
While cystic fibrosis symptoms may be more severe for some, anyone who lives with the condition will agree that the disease is life-altering.
Melissa Benoit, a cystic fibrosis patient, had an experience that most people with CF do not. She would end up having not one, but both of her lungs removed as she awaited transplantation.
Melissa had fought against the disease for a long time, but when she turned 29, she developed an infection that ravaged her lungs over the course of three years. Although she had been on antibiotics that were administered through her veins, she still struggled to get rid of the infection. And then came the flu.
She was already weak from the infection’s long-term damage, but when the infection was paired with the flu, Melissa experienced body-racking coughs that were so severe she fractured several ribs. At St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, doctors believed they had a simple solution for the flu: switch the antibiotics Melissa took. According to Melissa, “[the doctors] thought they’d just do a quick switcheroo with the antibiotics,” but plans changed when Melissa suddenly and unexpectedly became unresponsive.
While Melissa was unconscious, the infection became uncontrollable, and she was immediately transferred to Toronto General Hospital’s Surgical Intensive Care Unit, where doctors discovered that she was suffering from “severe bacterial infection involving her lungs, and the bacteria were very drug-resistant, so despite being on antibiotics, it was not very well-controlled,” according to Dr. Atul Humar, director of the transplant program.
Melissa was in desperate need of new lungs
She was literally drowning internally from her own blood and pus that surrounded her lungs, leaving her gasping for air for days. She needed a lung transplant. But a lung donation would not be available for some time, and Melissa didn’t have any time to spare. Her husband, Chris, along with her mom, dad, and uncle, met with doctors to come up with a game plan. For now, doctors advised, she needed to be put on Extracorporeal Lung Support, a medical device used to provide extra cardiac and respiratory support, since a conventional ventilator would not be enough.
According to Amanda Spriel, the perfusionist (a doctor who operates a lung-heart machine) at Toronto General who was involved in Melissa’s case, the Extracorporeal Lung Support machine works the same way lungs do. Like our lungs, the device pulls the blood from the body, removes the carbon dioxide, oxygenates the blood, and pushes the blood back into the body. Usually, the Extracorporeal Lung Support device provides enough support for the patient until he or she can undergo a lung transplant. Not for Melissa, though.
Not only did the device not help her, but it actually worsened her condition--baffling doctors. For whatever reason, the infection continued to spread and eventually reached her lungs entirely, where it seeped into her bloodstream, and induced septic shock. This meant she couldn’t have an organ transplant.
Read on to learn about how the removal of Melissa's lungs eventually led to her survival.
Photo: The Star