Heather McNamara, 7, will be discharged from a New York hospital today after a daring, high-risk operation last month in which doctors removed six vital organs so they could take out a baseball-sized tumor that had invaded her abdomen and threatened her life.
The marathon Feb. 6 operation lasted 23 hours. It was the first of its kind in a child and the second in the world, said the lead surgeon, Tomoaki Kato. In effect, the young cancer patient was both the donor and recipient of her own organs.
"She's doing fantastic," her father, Joseph McNamara, of Islip Terrace, Long Island, said Monday as the two played Old Maid in her room at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, noting that she spent from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the hospital's school for pediatric patients.
Kato's team removed and chilled the child's stomach, pancreas, spleen, liver and small and large intestines as they would for transplantation, so they could be restored after the tumor was taken out.
"This was a very high-risk procedure," Kato said. "It was a big responsibility. I was very nervous."
The transplant specialist said the cancer had spread so widely that the girl's stomach, pancreas and spleen couldn't be saved. In place of her stomach, Kato's team fashioned a pouch from intestinal tissue to hold food before it moves into the small intestine for digestion. The loss of her pancreas turned the child into a diabetic who will need insulin injections and digestive enzymes. Without a spleen, she'll face a heightened risk of infection. She can eat ordinary food, supplemented for now by a pump worn in a school-style backpack.
Kato said the surgery was so risky that the girl's father, 46, was prepped to be a live organ donor in case surgeons couldn't salvage his daughter's liver.
Kareem Abu-Elmagd, a University of Pittsburgh transplant surgeon, said: "It was a gamble. I admire Kato for having the courage to do this."
Kato said the gamble took a toll on him, too.
"Afterwards, I was about to collapse," he said. "I slept for five or six hours on a couch."
Last year, at the University of Miami, Kato carried out the first such operation, on a 62-year-old South Florida woman, whom he said is doing well.
For her part, Heather said she's feeling fine and can't wait to get home. She's missing her sister, Stephanie, 10, and a Pomeranian named Angel.
"I love to play with my dog," she said.