A high school senior is heading home after what she calls a "miracle" recovery from a lung disease, to the point that she no longer needs a lung transplant.
Michelle Harris, of Chicago, has a rare autoimmune disease called granulomatosis with polyangiitis that affected her lungs. The 18-year-old high school senior's condition deteriorated so much last year that doctors thought she would need a transplant to survive.
“She coded in the hospital the day before Thanksgiving and two other times after that while in Chicago,” Michelle's mother Sharon Harris said today in a statement, referring to her daughter having a heart attack. “The Chicago doctors had given up hope. They told me she wasn’t going to make it.”
Doctors at the Chicago hospital were able to put Michelle on a special machine that mimics the work of the lungs by oxygenating the blood. Called an ECMO [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation], the machine takes over the functions of the heart and lungs. In desperation, her parents reached out to specialists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital who agreed to take in the teen for further treatment.
“Michelle was referred to us because of our experience with ambulatory ECMO as a bridge to transplant,” Dr. Charles Hoopes, chief of University of Alabama at Birmingham's Section of Thoracic Transplantation, said in a statement today. “We decided to offer her a transplant at UAB given the low likelihood of recovery she faced. The difficulty in this is having the capability to take very sick patients like Michelle and create a functional person who can responsibly undergo the rigors of transplant.”
A specialized medical jet brought Michelle to Alabama. Her doctors said they were just hoping she would be healthy enough for a transplant. However, once in the specialized hospital, Michelle's organs started to improve.
"One of the strengths of bringing her to UAB was so that she could be awakened and engaged in physical therapy, and that wasn’t possible" on the Chicago ECMO Unit, Dr. Keith Wille, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, said in a statement. He explained they were able to put her on the machine in an easier position and "got her into a position where she could wake up better, participate in therapy and rely less on sedating medicines."
Weeks into the process, doctors removed the ECMO to quickly clean and reset it -- a process called a "circuit change." They were shocked, however, to see that Michelle was breathing on her own without the help of the machine.
“It’s usually a very traumatic thing for patients,” Shelby Bryant, a registered nurse at the hospital, said of changing the ECMO. “A patient’s oxygen rate can drop to the 50s, 60s or even lower.” A normal oxygen rate is 97 to 100.
After further tests and study, doctors found that months on the specialized machine had allowed Michelle's damaged organs to heal.
“Her lungs were doing 100 percent of the work,” Bryant said.
Michelle said she and her family are amazed at how well the treatment worked. Doctors say that at this point Michelle is doing so well that she does not need a transplant.
“We believe that God healed my lungs," Michelle said in a statement. "I remember Dr. Hoopes kept saying it was going to take a miracle for my lungs to heal, and I remember him saying that they weren’t too optimistic that they would; but they did. They did.”
In spite of how much she's been in the hospital, the senior will get to experience two of the biggest events of high school: prom and graduation.
Michelle has been working with a transplant coordinator, who offered to help her with her school work. Thanks to her school administrators and hospital staff, Michelle is expected to graduate on time.
“Those dates are very special to me,” Michelle said. “Ever since I started my senior year, I’ve been looking forward to those two days. I can’t wait to get home, continue to get better, and see my family and friends again.”
She is even preparing for her senior prom, thanks in part to the help of the Bella Bridesmaids dress shop. After the owners heard about Michelle's recovery, they gave the teen 12 dress options to pick from.
"They are so beautiful,” Michelle said. “I’m still trying to decide which one to wear.”