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This groundbreaking surgery could end up helping people who damaged their trachea while being on a ventilator for COVID-19.

By Korin Miller
April 07, 2021
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A woman in New York City has a new windpipe after undergoing the world's first trachea transplant.

Sonia Sein's vocal cords and trachea were damaged and scarred when she was intubated after having a life-threatening asthma attack six years ago. The trachea is part of your airway system; it carries air into your lungs and then brings carbon dioxide out. Also called a windpipe, the trachea connects the larynx (voice box) to the lungs and is important for normal lung function, the immune system, and breathing.

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Credit: Getty Images

Sein, 57, had several medical procedures to try to fix the issue, and she was left with a temporary hole in her throat that she needed to cover to be able to speak. "I think I lived more in the hospital than I did at home," she told Good Morning America. "I wasn't able to do running, going to the beach, laughing, dancing." Sein said she also lived in fear that she would suffocate in her sleep due to her health condition.

Sein ended up connecting with Eric Genden, MD, a head and neck surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, who developed a tracheal transplant procedure—which had never been done before. Sein said she received a call in January that the medical staff had found a donor.

On January 13, Sein underwent an 18-hour procedure, according to a press release from Mount Sinai. The surgery, which Mount Sinai described as "complex," required more than 50 specialists to perform.

During the procedure, the surgical team removed the donor trachea and associated blood vessels and reconstructing it inside Sein from her lungs to her larynx. They also used a portion of Sein's esophagus and thyroid to help provide blood supply to the new trachea.

After the procedure was over, Sein was able to breathe through her mouth for the first time in six years.

"It felt like the whole universe just went inside of me and said, 'Here. Accept it,'" Sein told Good Morning America. "And I was just so happy."

Dr. Genden said in a statement that the procedure, the result of 30 years of research, is especially important now—given that so many people have had to be intubated due to severe complications from COVID-19. "It is particularly timely given the growing number of patients with extensive tracheal issues due to COVID-19 intubation," he said. "Because of both mechanical ventilation and the nature of the COVID-19-induced airway disease, tracheal airway disease is precipitously increasing, and now we have a treatment."

Sein still has a hole in her neck, but doctors plan to close it soon so that she can speak freely.

She also has big plans to go to the beach. "All I wanna do is walk on the beach 'cause they told me I could never do it again," she told Good Morning America. "I wanna be able to just walk and say, 'Here. See? I did it.'"

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