Katie Sutherland, a lung transplant patient who was kept alive with an external artificial lung system, speaks with Canada AM in Toronto on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009.
Go the CTV story for photos, video report, interviews
Last summer, 16-year-old Katie Sutherland was on the brink of death, her lungs failing, her heart working far too hard. She needed a lung transplant quickly but no good matches were available.
Then, her doctors at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children decided they would take a risk and try something that had never been performed before on a child. They hooked her up to an external artificial lung system.
The procedure allowed Katie to stay alive for an entire month -- long enough for suitable donor lungs to become available. Today, with new lungs in her chest, Katie is resuming a normal life, thanks to the bold decision of her doctors.
The device the doctors used was the German-made Novalung. The device takes over much of the job of circulating her blood, filling it with oxygen and filtering out the carbon dioxide. Unlike older artificial lungs which were run by mechanical pumps, Novalung is powered by the patient's own heartbeat.
Just two years ago, an Ontario mother became the first adult patient in North America to be hooked up to a Novalung, when doctors at Toronto General Hospital helped Yen Tran stay alive long enough for a heart and lung transplant.
Like Tran, Katie was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a rare disorder in which the blood vessels in the lungs constrict, forcing the heart to work much harder than normal.
In the days before her surgery, Katie's heart was failing fast. It had swelled up to four times its regular size but was still unable to pump enough blood.
A 10-member team led by Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, Dr. Marc de Perrot and Dr. Andrew Pierre, SickKids cardiovascular thoracic surgeons, decided Katie needed surgery fast.
Keshavjee (pictured) told Canada AM Wednesday that Katie was so ill in the hours before her surgery, she almost certainly would have died that night.
"Patients with pulmonary hypertension are amongst the most challenging because they die so quickly and so suddenly," he said.
"So this (Novalung) really does open the doors and gives us a bridge for a period of time for when we might get an organ donor."
The three-hour surgery was difficult; at one point, Katie's weakened heart went into cardiac arrest.
But afterwards, the teen's condition improved almost immediately. Two days after being put on the Novalung, Katie could go off her ventilator. She was able to sit up in her hospital bed, eat, and talk with family and friends while attached to the artificial lung.
Then, 30 days later, Katie's family got the news they had been waiting for so long: a pair of donor lungs had become available.
Katie is now home again with her new pair of lungs, back to school and just returned from a surfing trip. Her father, Paul Sutherland, is filled with gratitude for the staff at SickKids.
"We know that Katie's life has been saved, and we are incredibly thankful to the staff," he says. "To actually experience a technological step forward is very humbling."
And Katie is amazed that an artificial lung the size of a portable CD player kept her alive.
"It just seems unreal that this little box saved my life," she told Canada AM.
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