Hospitals Use 'Lungs In A Box' To Solve Donation Shortage

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Hospitals Use 'Lungs In A Box' To Solve Donation Shortage
A box, which is more like the dome of an astronaut's helmet, acts like a ventilator and artificial heart, breathing new life into donor lungs.

Innovation requires thinking outside the box. In this case, the box is the innovation. 

Sixty-five-year-old Michael Piwowar of Wakegan, Illinois needed a new set of lungs. They were wrecked by COPD. 

"If I did any kind of exertion, I was out of breath. I couldn't breathe," he said. 

He couldn't fish. He couldn't woodwork. Everything exhausted him.  

"Walking to the bathroom would wind him," his wife, Debbie, said.

Piwowar's wait, like others needing a lung transplant, was challenging. Donor lungs are very hard to come by. Experts say only 15% of donated lungs are healthy enough to use.  

"Lungs are the only organs exposed to the external environment," said Dr. Ankit Bharat, Chief of thoracic surgery at Northwestern Medicine. "So, for example, someone had a car accident or a traffic accident and then they sustain permanent brain damage and they are dead. The heart may still be working, but once your brain dies, you're not able to protect your airways."

Surgeons needed a way to get more donor lungs, healthy donor lungs. So they turned to what the experts at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago call lungs in a box. 

"That's a game changer," Bharat said.

The box, which is more like the dome of an astronaut's helmet, acts like a ventilator and artificial heart, breathing new life into the lungs. 

Doctors run a blood substitute through connected tubes and treat the lungs with antibiotics.  

"Once the lungs recover and get better and they are usable — we think are usable for transplant — then we can move forward with that, rather than just discard them," Bharat said. 

"My first thought went straight to the old movie Frankenstein — keeping organs alive outside of the body," Debbie Piwowar said.

A transplant with makeover lungs requires extra patient education on the science. 

"They have more questions, and they want to know some of the options that may be not available here," Dr. Kalvin Lung said. 

This is something surgeons, like the aptly named Dr. Lung, don't mind. They reiterate that clean lungs from lungs in a box are safe and healthy. 

And for Piwowar, it has made all the difference. Three months into his "lungs in a box" lungs and he's closer to getting back to woodworking and fishing.