Just days after finishing the segment about tornado technology—only weeks after I relocated from the UK to the U.S.—I got assigned to the first-ever “TechKnow” sequel.
I had seen Phil Torres’ report on the “heart in the box” and was bowled over by that technology. More properly known as the Organ Care System, or OCS, the machine can prolong the time needed to transport the organ between donor and recipient by keeping blood (and even oxygen) flowing.
So, I couldn't wait to cover a similar innovation from OCS—the so-called “lungs in a box.” Our first stop was the Heart & Lung Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. The team there were all so highly professional, kind and caring, and I got to see first-hand how the OCS kept the lungs breathing mechanically after removal from the donor body.
The potential for this OCS innovation certainly seems enormous. OCS appears to overcome several obstacles faced by conventional transplant methods. First, imperfect lungs could be reconditioned by flushing it through with nutrients and antibiotics, thus increasing the donor pool. (The whole concept of “reconditioning” sent my mind spinning off into Frankenstein-style fantasies of cupboards stacked full of shiny new pink fluffy breathing lungs; all waiting with bated-breath for their new owners. This felt like science fiction!)
Reconditioning could also help with a second problem: a far bigger demand than supply. One of the major reasons why our lung recipient, Victoria, agreed to be interviewed was to illustrate the desperate need for more organ donation and encourage more people to sign up. Waiting lists for lungs in the U.S. are long, while the donor list is short. Lung recipients have to find a close donor match to their own lungs in terms of size and blood type, to reduce the high risks that the body will try to reject them after the transplant.
At St. Joseph’s, Dr. R. Walia showed me the x-rays and MRI scans for our possible recipient. Victoria, a great-grandmother, was in a desperate situation, as all other medical alternatives had not been fully successful. She was surviving on less than 30 percent lung capacity.
Meeting Victoria took my appreciation of her condition to a whole new level. Victoria welcomed us into her home with a warm smile, open arms—and total exhaustion. I took an instant liking to this special woman who spent her younger days flying herself and her family in Cessna planes, riding motorbikes, hiking and fishing. I was totally inspired by her strength, courage and determination.
Yet it was heartbreaking watching someone who had such a zest for life and was now leashed to an oxygen tank. This was a lady who dreamed of returning to the great outdoors, Halibut fishing and jogging with her dogs—not being confined to home and several meters of tubing that limited her to the confines of her house.
I was also touched by the love between her and her husband of 47 years, Brian, who held her hand tenderly throughout the entire interview. Brian clearly cherished his amazing wife, who was suffering from the same hereditary disease that took Victoria's own mothers life. Memories of meeting this beautiful couple even brings a tear to my eye now. Victoria explained to me that her own mother’s experience of the condition was very different, thanks to advances in medical care, but I also sensed her fear of the consequences of this disease, if innovation failed to intervene.
After meeting the doctors of St. Joseph’s and Victoria, it was now a case of waiting for some donor lungs. The crew and I were on tenterhooks as time passed, so it was unimaginable how agonizing the wait must have been for Victoria. As the hours and days rolled by, it wasn't looking likely that lungs would become available anytime soon. We had to ask, how long should we stay in the Phoenix area, if this might take days, weeks, or maybe even months?
The crew and I returned to our home base in California without having been able to shoot a OCS lung transplant—but more crucially, Victoria was still waiting. I felt emotionally invested and wanted to see her being given another chance of life by receiving a new pair of lungs. I returned to Los Angeles, humbled by how fragile life is and grateful for the health of friends, family and myself.
When we returned from Phoenix on a Thursday afternoon, I took a long weekend to get started on with more of the logistics of my relocation from London to Los Angeles. I secured a place to live by Sunday night, and decided to treat myself to a big food shop. I was planning to cook a big feast and chill before starting a new week in the “TechKnow” offices—which is when I got the call.
It was Joanne, my producer. St. Joseph's had called to say that a donor pair of lungs were about to become available, and that I should keep close to my phone over the next 90 minutes. I needed to start packing a bag to go back to Phoenix. Due to the OCS being part of a clinical trial, doctors were not sure whether the lungs would arrive in a traditional ice cooler or on the OCS machine—or be available at all. It was down to a luck of the draw.
Our travel and production coordinator, Stephanie, informed us that the last flights out for all the crew were around 9pm, and it was pushing on 6pm. We arranged cabs to the airport, not knowing whether the transplant would go ahead or not. It was better to be at the airport, ready to fly, rather than waiting around for confirmations. I had arrived at LAX with an hour to check-in and board this final flight of the day to Phoenix, when Stephanie called to relay the following message: “Shini, Joanne told me to tell you that its all going ahead, the lungs have been assigned to Victoria. And—she said that you'd understand this, even though I have no idea what she’s talking about—she said to tell you it’s OCS!"