PEORIA, Ill. — The doctor who helped transplant a windpipe grown from a child’s own stem cells said the procedure supports Catholic moral teaching while at the same time helping to “revolutionize medicine.”
On April 9, 2 1/2-year-old Hannah Warren underwent an intensive nine-hour surgery to install an artificial windpipe grown from her own bone marrow to correct a birth defect that left her unable to breathe, eat, swallow or speak on her own.
Rather than using embryonic stem cells, Dr. Mark Holterman of Children’s Hospital of Illinois — part of OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria — said the experimental procedure upholds the hospital’s mission of providing for the sick with the “greatest care and love” while also respecting Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.
Up until recently, the South Korean-born toddler has lived in intensive care because of a rare condition known as tracheal agenesis.
Were it not for the surgery, “Hannah would have been a prisoner in a hospital bed, requiring frequent suctioning of her saliva to prevent herself from drowning in her own secretions or developing pneumonia,” Holterman told Catholic News Agency May 3.
The fact that she has lived this long, he said, “is a testament to the nursing care she received in her hospital in Seoul,” since many patients with her condition die of “asphyxia at birth” or “subsequent pneumonia, lung damage or airway inadequacy.”
The oldest patient to ever live with this condition since birth was just 6 years old.
Now, thanks to the procedure performed by a team of international doctors, Hannah will be able to learn how to eat and drink through her esophagus. As she grows, the doctors plan to connect her tracheostomy to her voice box to allow her to speak and breathe normally on her own.
Because Hannah’s procedure uses her own cells, it reduces any risk of donor rejection and upholds Catholic doctrine, which is essential to the hospital’s mission, Holterman said.
“We prayed a lot on the correctness of proceeding with the risk and expense,” he said. “I believed we answered [God’s] call with obedience.”
When Holterman first met Hannah’s parents, Darryl and Lee Young-mi, on a trip to South Korea, he helped the couple get in touch with Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, a Sweden-based Italian surgeon who has been involved in more than a dozen similar windpipe transplants.
However, when it was apparent that the couple could not afford the operation at Dr. Macchiarini’s Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Holterman arranged to bring the family to Children’s Hospital in Peoria, which said it would waive the fees.
“We do not feel that it is right to charge for an experimental procedure,” Holterman explained, saying that the hospital staff discerned the “ethical” response to the situation would be to waive the cost, though the hospital is accepting donations to help offset some of the expense.
Nearly one month after her operation, Hannah is “doing well,” and her parents and 4-year-old sister, Dana, are “enjoying seeing Hannah explore her new world of tasting and smelling.”
Holterman said that, although the toddler had some complications immediately following the surgery, she is now well enough to “demand that she go to the playroom.”