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France

'Miracle girl' healthy after seven-organ transplant in Paris

© AFP

Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2014-04-15

Suffering from a rare illness, a five-year-old German girl underwent a seven-organ transplant at a Parisian hospital in 2010. One of the surgeons, Professor Christophe Chardot, spoke to FRANCE 24 about the exceptional medical feat.

Today, Erika is a nine-year-old like any other. But it wasn’t always the case.

Erika [whose last name has been omitted at her family’s request] is considered a medical miracle, having survived a high-risk, last-resort operation in which she underwent seven organ transplants in a Parisian hospital.

Suffering from Hirschsprung’s disease, a severe digestive and gastrointestinal disorder, the young German girl had the surgery in 2010 at the Hopital Necker - Enfants Malades, a pediatric teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Paris Descartes.

Seven of Erika’s organs were removed and replaced over the course of the operation, which took nearly twelve hours: the stomach, pancreas, small intestine, right colon, liver and both kidneys. The patient was five at the time.

Erika’s disease was incurable. Before her operation, her digestive system had no nerves and therefore could not function. Consequently, she could not digest and evacuate food, and had to receive the necessary nutrients intravenously. Erika’s other organs became damaged as a result of the disease, with her veins becoming clogged, her liver turning fibrous and her kidneys starting to shut down.

A surgery performed in secrecy

The hospital decided not to publicise the operation. “The doctors opted for humility and discretion,” explained Claudine Tanguy, the communications director at Necker. “It’s a risky surgery with a lot of uncertainty as to the outcome. Very specialised scientific journals covered it, but not the general press. It’s not just about the technical exploit; we’re also talking about a little girl’s future.”

Though Erika was discharged from the hospital and able to return home just a few weeks after the operation, she was still considered fragile and susceptible to numerous complications. Now, four years later and with Erika in stable health, the surgery is considered a success. Erika has already been the subject of several medical conferences, but her story has just recently been revealed to the mainstream media.

Erika’s operation was not the first of its kind, as multi-organ transplants have been performed for several years. But it is the first time in France that a patient has had that many organs transplanted in one surgery.

Five intestinal transplants per year in France

Three surgeons, Dr. Sabine Irtan and Professors Yves Aigrain and Christophe Chardot, led the operation. Though France has been considered a pioneer in intestinal transplants since the late 80s, Necker is the only hospital in the country that offers the operation.

According to Professor Chardot, roughly 100 such surgeries have been performed at Necker since 1994 – an average of five per year. “It’s not very much,” he told FRANCE 24. “But Necker remains the top European hospital in this domain.”

Erika’s surgery required contributions from several specialists. “Certain phases of the operation are stressful: after all the organs are removed, the abdomen is completely empty,” Chardot said during an interview on a televised medical programme.

Furthermore, all the organs transplanted must come from the same child donor, and child deaths – and therefore donors – are relatively rare.

Nearly 12 hours on the table

The second challenge was performing the surgery quickly enough, since the maximum time between the moment the organs are removed from the donor and the moment they are transplanted into the patient must not exceed six hours.

“We took out all the diseased organs at the same time and replaced them with the donor’s organs all at once,” Chardon explained, noting that the surgery took between 10 and 12 hours.

Today, Erika is doing well. “She goes to school, she eats almost normally, she has friends, she no longer has a catheter,” Chardon noted, adding that she returns to France two or three times a year for follow-up consultations. “She will have to take the anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life, and she will have to be monitored very closely for infections or tumors.”

That said, Hirschsprung’s disease cannot return once the affected organs are replaced – meaning that for now, at least, Erika is cured.

 

Date created : 2014-04-15

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