How drone-delivered lungs saved an Ontarian’s life

The last thing Alain Hodak remembers before his double lung transplant surgery was enthusiastically waiting in the operating room for a call from a doctor on the roof of the hospital, saying his drone had arrived.

The drone carried a pair of lungs a mile from downtown Toronto in what the University Health Network considers a first global delivery that Hodak agreed to participate in in September.

An engineer by training and drone lover, Hodak, 63, was eager to be the first transplant patient to receive lungs delivered by an unmanned drone, supplemented by UHN and Unither Bioelectronics.

Lungs for transplant delivered by drone for the 1st time: health network

The Toronto University Health Network claims to have completed the first double lung transplant where the lungs were delivered by drone. 2:12

The lungs traveled in a specially designed drone from Toronto Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital, both part of UHN. The trip only lasted six minutes, but Hodak’s doctor believes it could change the future of organ delivery.

Hodak is proud to be the guinea pig. The Ottawa resident was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2019 and says that before surgery, trying to breathe was “unbearable.”

“Having no air, I was on oxygen in industrial quantities of 25 liters per minute of oxygen, which is about as much as you could put in. And now I am able to breathe, and I am almost sometimes surprised to breathe, “Hodak told CBC News.

Hodak with his wife Suzanne before he fell ill. (Submitted by the University Health Network.)

Hodak’s condition deteriorated in early 2021 and he was told his only option was a lung transplant. He was put on the waiting list and rented a condo in Toronto in June with his wife to be close enough to the hospital, should an organ donor become available.

“It was a race against time,” Hodak said.

Drone delivery trials were underway

Meanwhile, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program at UHN, was testing organ delivery by drone. Keshavjee said he has been studying organ preservation for transport “my whole life”.

“We have used planes, helicopters, cars and vans, and there is often a logistical challenge. But it doesn’t seem right to use an entire Learjet to transport something that weighs only two kilograms,” he said. said Keshavjee.

While organs typically have to be airlifted to a local airport and then transported by road to a hospital, this method of delivery completely eliminates the need for airports. The drones, however, are automated, meaning there were fewer transport or logistics issues and no need for pilots – who also had to be changed if there was a “downtime” in the delivery process. .

Yet there are obstacles in an occupied and populated area.

“Flying a drone in this town is [challenging], because it is a populated area with a lot of radio interference and also [lots of] people around. So if you can fly a drone in this city, then you can fly a drone anywhere. “

Keshavjee said they had to apply for “a lot” of clearances for the drone to fly, including from Health Canada and Nav Canada.

The unmanned drone performs a training flight over Toronto as workers watch. (Jason van Bruggen / Unither Bioelectronics / The Canadian Press)

The team carried out 53 test flights between the two hospitals and had to develop a navigation system “that would not be disturbed”.

“We had a ballistic parachute on the drone, so if something was wrong, if one of the motors failed, if it tipped too suddenly or fell too fast, it would shut off the motors, blow up the parachute and the drone would come down slowly, ”Keshavjee said.

When everything was ready, Keshavjee informed the patients on his waiting list for the pilot project.

“I was with my daughter when they came to us and told us that the lungs were available and that there was this project the doctor was working on. And we said, ‘Absolutely, yes. I’m an engineer by trade and I love technology, ‘”said Hodak.

Alain Hodak, pictured with his family. (Submitted by the University Health Network.)

“I wanted to do it for technical reasons and the results of the advancement of science.

“And that’s obviously very, very important to me because [the drone] brought me the lungs that saved my life. “

“The lungs have arrived, we are going down”

At the end of September, the donor’s lung was transported to Toronto Western and prepared for flight in the carbon fiber drone. The lungs were filled with oxygen and set to the right temperature inside a cooler inside the drone.

Keshavjee waited “nervously” for delivery on the roof of the Toronto General. He would perform the transplant himself.

Hodak clearly remembers the night. It was 1 a.m. and he was waiting in the operating room with another doctor.

“[The doctor] came up beside me and told me the lungs were on their way. And then he was on the phone with Dr Keshavjee upstairs on the roof and he said “Lungs are in, we’re going down”.

“And then I closed my eyes and breathed and I woke up. And I said ‘I can breathe, it’s weird.'”

Dr Shaf Keshavjee is the Chief Surgeon of the University Health Network and the Director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program. (Submitted by the University Health Network)

The operation not only allowed Hodak to breathe again, it also allowed him to attend the wedding of his youngest daughter, albeit virtually. Hodak’s daughter got married two days after her operation. He had missed his son’s wedding in August due to his medical condition.

“Ten hours later, I woke up and was able to participate in the wedding. It was almost a miracle wedding gift,” Hodak said.

Three weeks later, Hodak says he feels “extraordinary” and is still “shocked” that he can breathe.

Organ delivery by drone could be the future

Keshavjee believes drone delivery could be a turning point for organ delivery around the world.

Keshavjee said the next step is to test the system with larger drones that have longer ranges and can fly longer distances. This would allow them “to slowly expand the distances and solve the regulatory problems.”

“It’s one thing to have a drone flying in downtown Toronto, but what do you do when there are 50 flying? ” He asked.

However, once the regulations are in place, Keshavjee is convinced that organ delivery by drones “will become routine”.

“We could send a drone to Calgary to pick up a lung and send it back. If we have the networks to recover the organs and preserve them properly, I see the future by transporting the organs to an organ repair center first. so that… the organs are optimized and prepared, then transported back to the receiving hospital, ”he said.

“I think this is just the start.

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