“I was prepared to die,” says Willie Dalagan.
That was just two months ago. It was May and the 44-year-old father of three was deteriorating in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at VGH.
“Willie was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis,” explains Dr. Hussein Kanji, “and his disease had progressed very rapidly. He was facing death from respiratory failure.”
Willie needed of a lung transplant, and it didn’t look like he would live to see a suitable match.
Fortunately, his VGH team had a solution and today, Willie is B.C.’s first lung transplant patient to be placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) while waiting for an organ match.
ECMO is a modified heart-lung machine that oxygenates a patient’s blood externally. Unlike a ventilator, it doesn’t require intubation, which can lead to patients becoming malnourished and decompensating. On ECMO, Willie could talk, eat, drink and even participate in his own care, including physiotherapy.
While ECMO isn’t suitable for every patient, Drs. Kanji and Gord Finlayson, both critical care specialists, saw the potential — and they were right. “Willie’s case proves that under the right circumstances we can use ECMO to serve as a bridge to transplant,” says Dr. Kanji.
“It buys time to secure the right organ match for stronger, healthier patients,” adds Dr. Finlayson. "It represents a whole paradigm shift in the way we can offer lung transplants for even better patient outcomes, which honours the donor.”
For Dr. John Yee, who performed the transplant operation, Willie’s case is yet another example of how VGH physicians and staff “provide the highest level of care comparable to any place in the world — if not better.”
Today, Willie is home with his family and making a remarkable recovery. Referring to ECMO, he says “it’s the only thing that kept me alive. If it wasn’t for technology and divine intervention I wouldn’t have lived long enough for transplant.”
On June 7, Willie received his new pair of lungs.
Willie’s VGH care team numbered up to 60 people and the difference they’ve made in the lives of the Dalagan family will never be forgotten. In fact, Hannah, Willie’s eldest daughter, is now resolved to become a doctor.
The family's gratitude to the donor's family is matched by their heartfelt appreciation for every one who contributed to Willie’s journey of care:
Words cannot describe our gratitude for the perfusionists, who made sure that the ECMO was working properly; for the respiratory, transplant and surgical teams, including Drs. Nador, Swiston, Bergeron and Levy, as well as Dr. Yee for his expertise and encouragement; for Dr. Kanji, for the ECMO; for Drs. Finlayson, Sweet and the nurses and other staff of the ICU; and for the doctors, nurses, RTs, PTs and care aides of Thoracics.
They've provided the best medical care for Willie. They were always on top of everything and knew what to do. They're the best and most amazing team and we're forever thankful to them.
We thank God for blessing us with the best medical team and for His comfort during this greatest trial in our family.
Thank you from the Dalagan family
For more on Willie’s story, read and watch the video here: