Seven-year-old Heather McNamara was heading home Tuesday, a month after surgery that temporarily removed organs from her digestive tract to allow removal of a tennis ball-size tumor.
According to her surgical team at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, the operation — referred to as an “auto-transplantation” because the patient’s own organs (instead of those from a donor) were reimplanted within four hours after being extracted — is the first of its kind to be performed on a child.
“If this doesn’t work, there’s nothing left,” Dr. Tomoaki Kato of New York-Presbyterian/Columbia, told CNN, remembering his thoughts during the surgery. “We were confident, but also prepared,” he recalled.
In a 23-hour operation involving three different carefully coordinated surgical teams, doctors first removed the stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, large intestine and small intestine along with the entwined tumor, placed the organs on ice with preservation solution, and then proceeded to extract the tumor while simultaneously preparing the body to receive the reimplanted organs.
The patient’s father, Joseph McNamara, was kept on standby as a live donor in the event Heather needed an emergency liver transplant during the operation. Fortunately, such measures were not required.
Dr. Devon John, a transplant surgeon at New York University School of Medicine, told CNN that he was impressed by the surgery. “The operative approach and treatment of this rare and significant tumor is a tour de force … requiring a well-planned, multidisciplinary approach to managing the patient and performing the operation itself,” said John, who was not involved in the surgery.
He also said that because Heather is a child, her blood vessels are smaller, which made the surgery more difficult: “It’s challenging in an adult, and much more so in a 7-year-old because there is much less wiggle room.”