Dr. Eric M. Genden Sr. and Sonia Sein have made medical history. In January, Dr. Genden performed the first ever trachea transplant, and Ms. Seiner serves as the patient for the experimental surgery.

In 2014, Sein was hospitalized due to a severe asthma attack. As a result, she had to to be intubated, and the procedure ended up damaging her windpipe. Her doctors had to perform a tracheotomy and she has lived with a tracheostomy tube for the past six years.

The procedure made breathing extremely difficult for Seiner, which cost her her job as a social worker. She has spent most of the past six years confined to her Bronx, New York home.

THE NEW YORK TIMES reports that hundreds of people die every year due to complications from damaged tracheas, which collapse and cause people to suffocate to death. But thanks to Dr. Genden, these statistics should be dropping from this point forward.

Sonia Sein with her team of doctors after her successful surgery

The groundbreaking, 18-hour surgery took place at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. Many transplant attempts have been made over the years, but all have been unsuccessful until now.

The reason for all the difficulty was largely due to the misconception about the trachea’s blood flow. It has been through that the trachea received blood through an intricate system of blood vessels that would be nearly impossible to reconnect during a transplant.

But Dr. Genden discovered blood flow actually comes through large vessels that pass through the esophagus and thyroid. So during his experimental surgery on Seiner, he also took the donor’s esophagus and thyroid and transplanted them along with the trachea.
“It’s kind of the holy grail of what we’ve all been after,” Genden tells NPR.

For Seiner, she was on the verge of giving up on life before reaching out to Dr. Genden. “I thought, ‘If they do a transplant for everything, they should do a transplant for trachea,’” she recalled. “I Googled ‘trachea transplant’ and Dr. Genden popped up. So I called.”

Sonia’s trachea before (L) and after (R) her transplant

“She was constantly suctioning, constantly worried about her airway, and it becomes overwhelming,” Dr. Genden said, like being held down in a swimming pool. “You start to panic because you can’t breathe.”

The successful surgery means that Sonia now has something to live for.

“We would have been planning my funeral,” she said, “but now we’re planning a birthday party.”

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