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In many ways, Brianna Ranzino seems like any other high school senior. The 17-year-old loves driving, serves on her school’s student council and was elected to homecoming court. The slight scars on her neck are the only visible clues of her difficult past and the incredible hurdles she has overcome.
When she and her parents first came to BWH in 2010, they had already been told by four hospitals that the then 14-year-old had only one year to live.
“Dr. (David) Sugarbaker was our last hope,” said Brianna’s mother, Lisa Ranzino, of BWH’s chief of Thoracic Surgery.
A tumor was crushing Brianna’s trachea, and she subsequently developed a tracheoesophageal fistula, a hole in the connection between her esophagus and her trachea. Frequent coughing bouts gave way to difficulty breathing. Eventually, Brianna couldn’t even swallow her own saliva, let alone eat or drink. And despite multiple surgeries, the tumor grew back, threatening her life.
BWH sparked new hope for the Ranzinos. Charles Vacanti, MD, chair of the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, developed a novel procedure in which he took cartilage cells from one of Brianna’s ribs and grew them in an incubator for several months.
Then, he attached the engineered trachea to Brianna’s abdomen, in hopes that if it grew sufficiently, it could be relocated to replace her damaged trachea.
Ultimately, the engineered trachea didn’t grow large enough to be used, and Sugarbaker proceeded with an aggressive back-up plan to remove the entire tumor, the damaged portions of her trachea and nearly her entire esophagus. The surgical team stitched the healthy portions of her trachea together and created a short esophagus from a portion of her stomach.
Recovery was a long road. It took several years for Brianna to begin to eat without a feeding tube and regain her strength.
Looking back on that time is surreal for the Ranzino family, as Brianna prepares to graduate high school in New Jersey and attend school for cosmetology, “something I’ve loved since I was little,” she says.
Brianna’ s life today is something her mother couldn’t even imagine back when her daughter was sick.
“When she was at her sickest, it was hard for us to even picture the next day,” Lisa recalls. “It was painful to think of her future—I didn’t know if she’d be here. Now, I’m planning her graduation, thinking about her attending her prom and getting married someday. I can dream now.”
View a 2010 video interview with the Ranzino family.