Baby's Artificial Lung Bridges to a Better Tomorrow

Owen Stark beats the odds with the help of an artificial lung

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Waiting for an organ to become available for a much needed transplant can be excruciating for patients and families. Many times, this story doesn't have a happy ending, as patients on transplant lists frequently run out of time.

An inspiring story from Washington University helped two-year-old Owen Stark have a chance to live the life he is meant to live. Owen was in full heart failure upon his transport to St. Louis Hospital.

"Artificial lung sustains infant and offers precious time waiting for transplant."

Owen's rare condition is called pulmonary hypertension in which blood doesn't flow through the lungs as the arteries are too small to allow passage. Avihu Z. Gazit, MD, a Washington University pediatric critical care physician and Owen's first doctor at St. Louis Children's Hospital, saw from initial tests that the right ventricle of Owen's heart was extremely large.

That compressed the left side of his heart and created severe high blood pressure in the lungs. As Owen's condition was so severe, a ventilator was added in addition to medication.

Gazit recalls their hope was that the ventilator would allow Owen to get well enough so he wouldn't need to be put on a heart-lung machine. After 24 hours, it was clear that the heart-lung machine was a must. With every hour, the team knew his chances were diminishing more and more.

The heart-lung machine buys time and provides therapy for patients awaiting a transplant. After 16 days on the heart-lung machine, Owen had improvement in his heart, but his lungs had not. In a last ditch effort to save Owen's life, the physician team elected to try the first ever attempt to use an artificial lung in a toddler.

Emergency permission was received from both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Washington University's Institutional Review Board.

The Novalung artificial lung, which is smaller than a bread box, was used. Gazit recounts the decision making process getting them to that point, "We had to determine what to do with Owen's lungs – do we support him and wait for a lung transplant or do we work to improve the lungs to get him off of the artificial lung?

We had to think about this every step of the way to form an approach."

Owen was on the artificial lung for 23 days when he accidentally kicked off one of the Novalung's connectors. This required emergency surgery to reconnect the device. In the operating room, his docs found the lung had healed enough to allow adequate circulation on its own.

One year later, Owen, while still on medication for pulmonary hypertension, has avoided a lung transplant.

Gazit concludes that the artificial lung appears to be a nice option for management of young children with serious illnesses prior to transplant. St. Louis hospital aspires to be part of or the lead in a trial to further study the possibilities implementing the artificial lung in seriously ill children.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 16, 2011
Last Updated:
June 24, 2011