Story at a glance

  • Mount Sinai Hospital in New York made history performing the first trachea transplant in the U.S.
  • The trachea is a roughly 4-inch long tube that carries oxygen into the lungs.
  • Doctors hope this could also be a step forward in helping patients who have respiratory damage from COVID-19.

New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital made history, performing the first trachea, or windpipe, transplant in the United States.

The trachea is a roughly 4-inch long tube that carries oxygen into the lungs.

In the 18-hour surgery, 56-year-old social worker Sonia Sein received a donor trachea after living with a damaged one for six years. In 2014, Sein’s windpipe was damaged when doctors had to intubate her to help her breathe while she was having a severe asthma attack. She underwent several reconstructive surgeries after, but her windpipe remained damaged and left her “trying to catch every breath at every moment,” she said.

“We’re hoping that this procedure will … help not only the patients that are teetering on disaster, but also the patients that are currently kind of deemed hopeless,” said Eric Genden, the Mount Sinai surgeon who led the transplant team.


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While experts say it is too early to deem the transplant a success, only three months following her operation, Sein has had no complications, but she needs to take anti-rejection drugs for the foreseeable future to ensure her body doesn’t reject the donor organ. 

Though the trachea is seen as a small tube that allows air to flow into the lungs, doctors have said the act of transplanting a donor trachea to the recipient’s blood supply is complex and difficult. 

“It is just technically extremely difficult,” David Klassen, chief medical officer for the United Network for Organ Sharing, or Unos, which manages the transplant system in the United States, told The Guardian“It’s been a very difficult thing to crack.”

In the past, surgeons could remove parts of the trachea that were damaged, sometimes attempting to replace them with lab-grown tissues, grafts from the patient’s own skin or rib cartilage, or prosthetics. However, these procedures often don’t fully restore the trachea’s function. 

The medical advancement offers a sense of hope, not only to a litany of patients with respiratory diseases and acute windpipe damage, but in a time when the coronavirus is still surging across the country, often attacking the respiratory systems of patients with severe cases.

Last July, reports found that as the coronavirus ravages the lungs, 20 percent of symptomatic COVID-19 patients were hospitalized and 5 percent ended up in the ICU, typically on a ventilator. Patients on a mechanical ventilator often face a prolonged recovery and long-term complications.

“This could help care for Covid-19 patients,” said Albert Merati, a surgeon at the University of Washington. “Without a doubt we are already seeing some impact” of the complications from patients being on ventilators.


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Published on Apr 07, 2021