'Dying' girl survives six days without a heart

A 10-year-old Chinese girl with severe heart disease recently survived after her heart stopped beating for six long days, thanks to life-saving equipment and a heart transplant at a Shanghai hospital.

The girl, named Xi Xi, received a heart transplant on June 3 at the Shanghai Children's Medical Centre after her own heart failed.

According to the hospital, the young patient showed symptoms of chest tightness, shortness of breath, vomiting and low fever on May 27, and an electrocardiogram confirmed acute carditis, or inflammation of the heart.

The centre said further examinations including cardiac magnetic resonance imaging and echocardiography showed that she had fulminant carditis, a disease that has the highest mortality rate among lethal forms of carditis.

"The so-called 'fulminant' means it was both an acute and rapid process. Making it more colloquial, the patient, after certain virus infection, had a strong immunologic reaction. The reaction is so strong that it not only kills the virus, but also the patient's organs," said Ren Hong, an associate chief physician of the intensive care medicine of the centre.

The girl's condition deteriorated rapidly, prompting the doctors to adopt a technique known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, to maintain her blood circulation and oxygen supply.

"The extracorporeal life supporting technique is to function as a second set of heart and lungs for her. When her heart fails to do the job, we have another option to ensure blood and oxygen supply to her lungs, kidneys and the entire body," said Ren.

Just as the doctors breathed a sigh of relief over her recovery, the girl's heart stopped beating.

Examinations showed the girl's heart had never recovered and that some of her limbs turned bluish, signalling death of tissue.

Only a transplant could save the girl, but it was hard to find a matching heart, especially for a child, since a donor's heart had to match with the girl's in terms of blood type and size.

Fortunately, the doctors were able to found a match in Tianjin through the China Organ Transplant Response System on June 2, five days after the girl's heart stopped beating.

The centre sent a team of doctors to Tianjin later on the same day to fetch the heart. And on June 3, they boarded a plane to Shanghai with the vital organ for the girl.

The girl is expected to make a recovery.
The girl is expected to make a recovery. Photo credit: Reuters

It was a race against the clock since the transplant must be conducted within six to eight hours after the heart was obtained from the donor's body.

To everyone's excitement, the operation was successful, and it had been six days since the girl's heart stopped beating.

"The operation went really well and the anastomotic stomas matched with each other. The blood supply resumed at 21:00, much quicker than we had expected. But since it was not her own heart, it was only one hour and a half later that the translated heart started beating. All of us were extremely excited at the moment," said Zheng Jinghao, a chief physician of cardiothoracic surgery department of the centre.

After the operation, the girl was transferred to the intensive care unit and in the following days she received medical treatment for infection and rejection as well as other symptoms.

She has been recovering and is scheduled to be discharged from the hospital in a few weeks.