New technique helps lung patients breathe

January 20, 2011 9:11:13 PM PST
In recent years, new techniques and a rise in organ donors have increased lung transplants.

However, all too often, recipients become too sick to even get to the operating room. A doctor at Temple University Hospital thinks he has a way to get more patients there.

To look at Tamar Ellensworth, you would never know how sick she was just over a year ago.

"I was on oxygen 24/7," Tamar said.

A chronic disease called sarcoidosis had weakened her ability to breathe. It got worse day by day until she was in lung failure.

"She was unable to get up from a chair, because that would wind her too much. She was unable to take the oxygen off long enough to even take a sip of water," said Dr. Abeel Mangi.

So the search began for lungs to transplant, but time was running out.

"She had probably 6 to 8 hours to live," said Dr. Mangi.

To keep her healthy enough for a transplant, Dr. Abeel Mangi of the Temple Lung Center used a new twist on a last-resort technique called ECMO; that's short for "Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation". It oxygenates the blood.

"It takes over the function of your heart and lungs," said Dr. Mangi.

Normally, it's done through a blood vessel in the neck or groin, but that immobilizes the patient. And that can cause other problems. Often patients become too sick to undergo a transplant.

So instead Dr. Mangi goes through a vein under the collarbone. It allowed Tamar to move.

The technique worked immediately.

"I could breathe," said Ellensworth.

Luckily, soon after, a lung donor for Tamar was found, and she got her transplant.

Although it was a long road to recovery, because the sarcoidosis was only in her lungs, doctors say she's cured.

And she's savoring her good health.

"I feel like it's a brand new life," said Ellensworth.

Doctor Mangi says another reason for the success of this case is that it was done before Tamar was put on a ventilator. In fact, she never went on one.

He says if this procedure was done more often, it could help more people live long enough to get transplants.