A COVID breathing breakthrough

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 8:21 AM EDT
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COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than a half a million Americans. The largest analysis of hospitalized patients to date finds that most did not survive after being placed on a ventilator. Now, a device that helped Superman breathe decades ago is working to get COVID patients off these machines and breathing on their own.

Behind these doors … in this operating room in Cleveland … University Hospitals’ Raymond Onders was the first surgeon in the U.S. to implant a device called the Transareis system to help struggling COVID patients breathe on their own again.

“What we know, is when you’re on a ventilator, your diaphragm muscle will atrophy faster than any other muscles. Within 24 hours, you lose 50 percent of your diaphragm muscle mass,” explained Dr.Onders, chief of general surgery at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

To keep muscles from atrophying, electrodes are implanted into the muscle near the phrenic nerve, which controls the diaphragm. A small battery-powered external pulse generator stimulates the electrodes and causes the diaphragm to contract.

Dr. Onders had used the diaphragmatic pacing device on Christopher Reeve after a tragic accident left the Superman actor paralyzed from the neck down. Now, in less than 48 hours after implanting the device, some ICU patients are breathing on their own too.

“It’s kind of like aggressive physical therapy for that diaphragm. So that once your acute injury is over, we can now get you off the ventilator faster,” Dr. Onders described.

The FDA granted Dr. Onders emergency use authorization last year during the height of the pandemic. It’s also been approved for use in high-risk cardiac surgery patients, spinal cord injury patients, as well as those suffering from ALS.

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