Groote Schuur transplant programme breathes again

14 December 2017 - 15:29 By Aron Hyman
Groote Schuur hospital. File photo
Groote Schuur hospital. File photo
Image: Rodger Bosch/AFP

Groote Schuur Hospital’s lung transplant programme took its first breath — and its last — in 1993‚ when surgeons performed a single transplant.

But as a 38-year-old Cape Town woman took her first breath through a stranger’s lungs on Monday‚ the first public sector lung transplant programme in Africa was revived.

For years South Africans with terminal lung problems only had the option of transplants at a private hospital in Johannesburg. The new programme hopes to make the operation available to all who need it‚ regardless of whether they can pay.

Two members of the team who performed the pioneering double transplant this week‚ Greg Calligaro and Tim Pennel‚ spent a year in “high-volume” lung transplant centres in Australia and Austria to prepare for the revival of Groote Schuur’s programme.

Lung transplants are seen as the final frontier of “solid organ” transplants as the patient’s breathing and heart function is performed by an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation service — a machine which acts as a heart and lungs — while the lungs are replaced one after the other. The operation can take several hours.

Calligaro said the number of operations they would be able to perform depended on the availability of donor lungs.

“This is the pinnacle of what a hospital can offer‚ and if you are able to do this procedure and look after these patients‚ it means you have to have a very good anaesthetic department‚ a very good microbiology department‚ a very good histopathology department‚” he said.

“That uplifts the training for everybody‚ it uplifts the care for everybody. It’s almost not about the patient who gets the procedure. It’s about enabling the equipment‚ facilities and expertise — and that spills down to all aspects of patient care.”

He said the programme would make Groote Schuur a world leader‚ and enable it to attract international expertise from around the world.

Groote Schuur CEO Bhavna Patel said the lung donor’s kidneys and liver saved two other patients.