Woman with days to live is saved thanks to box that mimics the human body

By | April 21, 2019

Helen Rawlinson lay in her hospital bed, hours from death, writing goodbye letters to her family.

At her side, fiancé Darryl Flynn was holding her hand, not wanting to give up hope.

At just 29 and waiting for a second liver transplant, brave Helen seemed to have run out of chances to live.

Because of her medical history and fears her body would reject a new liver, she was way down the priority list for the healthiest transplant organs available – normally from donors who have been on life support.

And she was so poorly, she was given little chance of even a “lower quality” donation after circulatory death (DCD) liver – likely to be damaged by lack of blood circulation after death through heart or lungs failure.

But, almost miraculously, Helen was about to be given the best gift of her life.

A liver wrapped up in a BOX.

As she lay dying, her consultant liver specialist at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds decided on one last throw of the dice.

Magdy Attia had been involved in clinical trials with American company TransMedics which had built a pioneering Organ Care System machine that mimicked conditions in the human body, keeping a donor liver healthy and “alive” with blood circulating through it.

Mr Attia told the firm of Helen’s plight and astonishingly they agreed to send the box – still undergoing trials in Massachusetts – on a 3,500 mile journey to Britain if a donor could be found.

Crucially it also meant any DCD liver inside could be thoroughly tested by doctors before the operation to ensure it was viable.

With little hope of a new liver and time running out, Helen’s consultant contacted a doctor in the US, who had been testing a new device that keeps donor organs healthy

Amazingly, the doctors in Massachusetts agreed to send one of the devices to the UK

 

While all this was being quietly arranged, teacher Helen, of Lancaster, was preparing for death after years of battling autoimmune hepatitis – a condition where the immune system attacks the liver.

After falling ill in 2008 she had been placed on the emergency transplant list and a match was found within a week. “It took me a year to recover properly from the operation,” she says: “My body felt like it was broken.”

Helen lived normally until 2016 when her liver came under attack again. She was also diagnosed with a heart defect which needed an op to insert a stent.

She became so weak, she was placed on the organ transplant list again in March 2017. But her risk of a second failure put her 47th in the queue for a high-quality donation after brainstem death (DBD) liver.

“I was so, so poorly. I spent the next four months dying in hospital,” says Helen. “I turned extremely yellow and was really skinny. I looked awful.

“I was on the list but until it was my turn there was nothing they could do for me. I was just waiting and waiting and I felt myself just wasting away. My family tried and tried to get me up the list but there was no movement.”

The hospital even offered Helen and Darryl, 28, the chance to marry in its chapel, but the couple refused as Helen felt it would mean she was giving up on her chance of life. She says: “I always held on to the hope that I would get better.” But by August Helen had deteriorated so much she was put on palliative care – and had asked to go home to die. She says: “I had given up all hope. I had fought for so long and had tried to stay positive. I asked Darryl to take me home to die. He was distraught. It was absolutely horrendous for us.

“I was on my deathbed. I wrote letters to my family for when I was gone.”

The pioneering device kept her donor organ healthy until she had her second liver transplant

 

But just one day after she had asked to be taken home, a matching donor with a “lower quality” liver was found in the north of England.

In a race against time, the Transmedics box was put on a flight to the UK and the bedside of her donor. And its incredible preservation techniques meant it ticked all the boxes for Helen.

The magic box was then rushed to Leeds and Helen was prepared for an operation that would save her life – and make her the first person in the UK who has undergone a second transplant with the help of the machine.

Helen says: “We were all absolutely over the moon. They said I only had until the end of the week. I didn’t think I’d get a new liver – I had to come to terms with dying.

“The machine saved my life and can save so many others. All I was told is that the donor was in the north of England.

“The liver was put into the machine and sent to me in Leeds. It preserved the organ, kept it healthy for me and made it possible. Without it, I wouldn’t be here now.

“What the company did, to send me the machine, was absolutely amazing. They completely saved me and have changed my life.”

Within days, Helen’s jaundice disappeared and she was allowed home just 10 days after the op

Now healthy, Helen is looking forward to marrying her fiance Darryl next year

Within days Helen’s jaundice disappeared – and 10 days after the op she was allowed home. Mr Attia told us the machine is the “Rolls-Royce” of organ transplantation. He said: “DCD livers are lower in quality and present a higher risk for transplants. The machine tests the organ function.

“It’s also one way of avoiding damaging the liver.

“It’s kept warm and supplied with oxygen. With Helen, a DBD liver was not available to us. She was very sick and was disadvantaged by the allocation system.

“The only way to treat her was with a DCD liver using the machine. She needed a transplant urgently and we approached TransMedics on compassionate grounds. They agreed to send it to us for free with no hesitation.

“They responded within 24 hours and the machine was available to us within a week.”

Similar machines that are part of a European trial are being used in a handful of hospitals in the UK, but there were none available for Helen at Leeds.

The OCS perfusion machine isn’t readily available for patients as it is still undergoing US trials, which are due to be completed in December 2020. Helen is now looking to the future, and will marry welding inspector Darryl in May 2020 at their local church. She says her wedding will be “full of music, love and laughter”.

Over the last eight months Helen has amazed doctors with her seamless recovery, and says she feels healthier now than she has in years.

“I couldn’t thank the company or my doctors enough. I can’t put it into words how lucky I feel,” she says. “I’ve got a life now. There’s no greater gift.”

Lifting the lid on a miracle

The OCS perfusion machine isn’t readily available for patients as it is still undergoing US trials

The Transmedics Organ Care System (OCS) is described by its inventors as “portable, multi-organ preservation technology”.

The box mimics conditions inside the human body, minimizing the chance of injury to organs through poor blood supply, and ensuring they are kept in top condition.

There are three types of OCS machines – lung, liver and heart.

Warm, oxygenated blood is pumped through organs as if they are in a living, functional state. As a result, the lung breathes, the heart beats, and the liver produces bile.

The machine analyses organ function and provides conditions better than cold storage – the normal way of preserving organs.

The OCS liver machine was submitted for its first clinical trials in August 2015. They have so far involved 300 people and have focused on side effects and post- transplant outcomes. The results will be known in 2020.

Similar machines are being trialled by another company in europe – if successful it is hoped they’ll become available worldwide.

Read More

Top news stories from Mirror Online

Mirror – Health