Medical Moment: First human trachea transplant

Published: Jan. 5, 2022 at 9:20 PM EST
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It’s a medical milestone that has the potential to save thousands of people with birth defects, cancer, or injury to their windpipes.

A team of surgeons in New York successfully transplanted a human trachea into a critically ill patient. One year later, that patient is thriving and now wants others with badly damaged windpipes to know they may have a life-saving option.

57-year-old Sonia Sein takes nothing for granted, including daily walks through her neighborhood with her niece, Monique. Sonia had a severe asthma attack in 2014 and had to have several emergency intubations to save her life.

“They kept removing it to see if I can breathe on my own and them doing that, they damaged the trach,” she says.

Sonia had to breathe through a surgical hole in her neck and still has the opening there.

“I have a plug that I have to push in,” she says. “It holds the air so I can talk.”

For years, Sonia was in constant danger of having her trachea collapse and then suffocating.

“The trachea is a little bit like the Rodney Dangerfield of organs,” says Eric Genden from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It never gets much respect. It looks like a tube, but it’s actually a very complex organ system.”

Genden says the difficulty with human transplantation is re-establishing blood flow.

“We’re using a high-powered microscope, hooking up these little blood vessels, using a suture that’s a thinner than a human hair,” Genden says. “It’s actually difficult to see without a microscope.”

Sonia knew there were serious risks involved with transplantation, but she also knew she was running out of time.

“I didn’t know what would happen,” she says. “I told him all I want is five minutes to be able to take that air in normally.”

Last January, in an 18-hour long surgery, doctors removed Sonia’s damaged trachea, and replaced it with a donor organ and blood vessels. Sonia is still recovering but can play with her grandkids and stroll with her niece. She wants her survival story to inspire others.

“I want people to see that just because there’s a setback in your life, doesn’t stop,” she says. “You can still get up and do whatever you want, but you’ll get there.”

Doctors hope in the future to be able to close the hole in her neck, which would allow her to do one activity she says she’s missed over the past seven years—she really wants to go to the beach to swim.

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