How lungs delivered by drone saved an Ontario man’s life

The final thing Alain Hodak remembers earlier than his double lung transplant surgical procedure was excitedly ready within the working room for a name from a health care provider on the roof of the hospital, saying his drone had arrived.

That drone carried a pair of lungs 1.5 kilometers throughout downtown Toronto in what University Health Network believes was a world-first supply that Hodak had agreed to be a part of in September. 

An engineer by commerce and a lover of drones, 63-year-old Hodak was desirous to be the primary transplant affected person to obtain lungs delivered by an unmanned drone, accomplished by UHN and Unither Bioelectronique.

Lungs for transplant delivered by drone for 1st time: health community

Toronto’s University Health Network says it has accomplished the primary double lung transplant where lungs have been delivered by drone. 2:12

The lungs travelled in a purpose-built drone from Toronto Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital, each a part of the UHN. The journey lasted simply six minutes, however is one Hodak’s physician believes may change the way forward for organ supply.

Hodak is proud to be the guinea pig. The Ottawa resident was identified with pulmonary fibrosis in 2019 and says, earlier than the surgical procedure, attempting to breathe was “unbearable.”

“Having no air, I was on oxygen in industrial quantities of 25 litres a minute of oxygen, which is pretty much as much as you could put in. And now I’m able to breathe, and I’m almost sometimes surprised about breathing,” Hodak instructed CBC News.

Hodak with his spouse, Suzanne, earlier than he fell ailing. (Submitted by University Health Network.)

Hodak’s situation deteriorated in early 2021 and he was instructed his solely possibility was a lung transplant. He was positioned on the ready listing and rented a apartment in Toronto in June with his spouse to be shut sufficient to the hospital, ought to a donor organ develop into obtainable.

“It was a race against time,” Hodak mentioned.

Drone supply trials have been underway

Meanwhile, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, the director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program at UHN, was trialling the supply of organs by drone. Keshavjee mentioned he had been finding out organ preservation for transport “all my life.”

“We’ve used planes and helicopters and cars and vans, and oftentimes there’s a challenge in logistics. But it seems not right to use a whole Learjet to transport something that weighs only two kilograms,” mentioned Keshavjee.

While organs should normally be transported by way of air to an area airport, and then transported by street to a hospital, this supply technique eliminates the necessity for airports altogether. Drones, nevertheless, are automated, that means there have been fewer transport or logistical points and no want for pilots — who additionally wanted to be modified if there was a “time out” within the supply course of. 

Still, there are hurdles in a busy, populated space.

“Flying a drone in this city is [challenging], because it’s a populated area with a lot of radio frequency interference and also [lots of] people around. So if you can fly a drone in this city, then you can fly a drone anywhere.”

Keshavjee mentioned they needed to search “a lot” of permission for the drone flight to happen, together with from Health Canada and Nav Canada. 

The unmanned drone makes a observe flight over Toronto as employees seems on. (Jason van Bruggen/Unither Bioélectronique/The Canadian Press)

The group undertook 53 take a look at flights between the 2 hospitals and needed to develop a navigation system “that would not be interfered with.”

“We had a ballistic parachute on the drone so if anything went wrong with it, if one of the engines failed, if it tipped too suddenly or it dropped too fast, it would cut the engines, blow the parachute out and the drone would come down to earth slowly,” Keshavjee mentioned.

When every little thing was prepared, Keshavjee knowledgeable sufferers on his ready listing concerning the pilot venture. 

“I was with my daughter when they came to us and told us the lungs were available and there was this project that the doctor was working on. And we said, ‘Absolutely, yes. I’m an engineer by trade and I love technology,'” Hodak mentioned.

Alain Hodak, pictured with his household. (Submitted by University Health Network.)


“I wanted to do it for technical reasons and the results of advancing the science.

“And it is clearly very, essential to me as a result of [the drone] was bringing me the lungs that saved my life.”

‘The lungs arrived, we’re coming down’

In late September, the donor lung was taken to Toronto Western and prepared for flight in the carbon-fibre drone. The lungs were filled with oxygen and set at the correct temperature inside a cooler box inside the drone. 

Keshavjee was “nervously” awaiting the delivery on the roof of Toronto General. He would perform the transplant himself.

Hodak remembers the night clearly. It was 1 a.m. and he was waiting in the operating room with another doctor.

“[The doctor] got here subsequent to me and mentioned the lungs are on their means. And then he was on the cellphone with Dr.Keshavjee upstairs on the roof and he mentioned ‘The lungs arrived, we’re coming down’.  

“And then I closed my eyes and I took a breath and I woke up. And I said ‘I can breathe, this is weird.'”

Dr. Shaf Keshavjee is the University Health Network’s Surgeon-in-Chief and the director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program. (Submitted by University Health Network)

The operation did not solely enable Hodak to breathe once more, it additionally allowed him to attend his youngest daughter’s marriage ceremony, albeit just about. Hodak’s daughter was married two days after his surgical procedure. He had missed his son’s marriage ceremony in August as a consequence of his health.

“Ten hours later, I was waking up and I was able to participate in the wedding. It was like almost a miracle wedding gift,” Hodak mentioned.

Three weeks on, Hodak says he feels “amazing” and continues to be “shocked” that he is in a position to breathe.

Drone organ supply might be the longer term

Keshavjee believes the drone supply might be a watershed second for organ supply worldwide. 

Keshavjee mentioned the following step is to check the system out with larger drones that have longer ranges and might journey longer distances. This would enable them to “slowly expand the distances and address the regulatory issues.”

“It’s one thing to have one drone flying in downtown Toronto but what do you do when there’s 50 flying around?” he requested.

However, as soon as rules are in place, Keshavjee is assured that organ supply by drones will “become routine.”

“We could send a drone to Calgary to pick up a lung and send it back. If we have the networks to retrieve organs and preserve them properly, I see the future being transporting organs to an organ repair centre first so that … organs are optimised and prepared and then flown again to the recipient hospital,” he mentioned.

“I think this is just the beginning.”

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