When Melissa Benoit heard about her near-death experience, she thought it was a work of science fiction. In what is believed to be a world first, doctors at Toronto General Hospital removed the Canadian mom's lungs and kept her alive artificially for six days in order to save her life.
"I did not believe my mom or my husband, the people that I trust the most, that I had had a lung transplantation and I lived for six days on life support with an empty chest cavity," Benoit, who is also a nurse, told CBC.
The 33-year-old was born with cystic fibroisis, the most common fatal genetic disease affecting Canadian children and young adults. It can cause thick phlegm buildup in the lungs and digestive system and lead to a range of symptoms that affect the entire body. Currently, there is no cure.
In April 2016, Benoit had a bout of influenza that left her gasping for air and coughing so much that some of her ribs were fractured. She felt like she was drowning as her lungs filled with blood, pus and mucus. Doctors gave her antibiotics and put her on a ventilator, but the super infection was spreading into her body.
Benoit had made it clear that she wanted to live for her family and her daughter, and she would do anything for that chance.
The doctors and family had to make a radical decision: Do they remove her lungs, the source of her sepsis problem, even though they didn't know how long it would be—a day, a week or a month—until she could receive a transplant?
“It was a difficult discussion because when we’re talking about something that had never to our knowledge been done before. There were a lot of unknowns,” Dr. Niall Ferguson, head of critical care at the University Health Network, who oversaw Benoit's care in the ICU, told The Globe and Mail. “In Melissa’s case, our hand was being forced a little bit because she was actively dying, and if we hadn’t done something, she would have died that day for sure.”
The family agreed to go through with the operation, which Benoit's mom, Sue Dupuis, said had a 1 percent chance of saving her life. But Benoit had made it clear that she wanted to live for her family and her daughter, and she would do anything for that chance.
It took a 13-member surgical team and a 9-hour operation to remove her lungs, which felt so heavy and rock-like, one surgeon said they could barely pry it out of her chest.
To buy her time, the team put her on a Novalung, which acted as her lungs and infused blood with oxygen while removing carbon dioxide, and an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which helped her heart pump blood through her body.
Within minutes, the mom's blood pressure normalized, and Benoit was able to get an organ match after five to six days.
After being immobile and in an induced coma for so long, Benoit had to go through physiotherapy and relearn muscle movements, like holding her head up, moving her hands and sitting up.
Now, she can walk again. Her biggest motivations included seeing her 3-year-old daughter Olivia grow up—and swimming with her.
“You really come from the brink of death to back living at home," she said. "But I’m just so grateful, so happy to be home.”