A hospital in Spain’s capital Madrid performed the world’s first intestine transplant from a donor whose heart had stopped beating, Madrid’s health minister announced on Tuesday.

The recipient was a 13-month-old toddler named Emma. She had been diagnosed with intestinal failure when she was just a month old and, at times, there was little hope that doctors could save her.

But her condition coincided with a three-year research project at the La Paz hospital, in which researchers were investigating whether it would be possible to transplant intestines from donors in asystole. Asystole is another term for cardiac death and means that someone’s heart’s electrical system has failed completely.

After studying the idea, deciding Emma was a good candidate and finding a donor, doctors performed the unprecedented surgery.

It was a success, and Emma has been discharged from the hospital.

“Our salvation came the moment she went into that operating room. Our life has done a full 180-turn because she’s gotten so much better … she’s already starting to crawl,” said Emma’s father at a press conference.

Francisco Hernández Oliveros, head of pediatric surgery at La Paz hospital, said researchers looked into using intestines from donors in asystole because there are “very few pediatric donors in Spain.”

“It’s important to emphasize what this transplant represents now and what it will represent in Spain and the rest of the world. We are talking about a global milestone and an absolutely pioneering intervention,” said Beatriz Dominguez Gil, head of the Spanish National Transplant Organization.

“This is very promising for other children who may be in the same situation as Emma.”

Spain is already a global leader in organ donation, with a donation rate more than double that of the average in Europe. In 2021, nearly 5,000 transplants were performed in Spain, according to the Spanish Health Ministry, up 8% from 2020.

One of the reasons for Spain’s leadership position is that individuals automatically donate organs unless they have opted out of the system. The National Transplant Organization has also served a key role in coordinating transplants.

Advances with donations in asystole have been another critical way for the number of transplants to continue to increase. Between 2020 to 2021, those donations increased by 32% in Spain.


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