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Christopher Ducko, MD, center, programs Jessica Whitson’s new diaphragm pacing system for the first time with Ray Onders, MD, right, and Jon Wee, MD
A car accident three years ago rendered 20-year-old Jessica Whitson paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on a ventilator to breathe.
“It’s been hard for her,” said her mother, Kelli Whitson, of Haverhill, noting that her daughter also has difficulty having a conversation because of the ventilator. “She has to wait for the machine to let her breathe out, and while she’s waiting, people think she’s done talking.”
Now, Jessica Whitson is a step closer to liberation from the ventilator, thanks to a procedure performed Aug. 5 at BWH—the first time in New England. Christopher Ducko, MD, of BWH Thoracic Surgery, implated a new device made by Synapse Biomedical, Inc., to stimulate Whitson’s diaphragm, the major muscle used for breathing.
“With Jessica’s high cervical spine injury, the connection was lost between her breathing center and her phrenic nerve, but the nerve end in the diaphragm are still alive,” said Ducko, who implanted the device laparoscopically. The device is powered by a small external battery pack and prompts the diaphragm to contract. Breathing and speaking become more natural than with the ventilator, which forces air into the lungs. In addition to patients with paralysis, a pilot study shows the diaphragm pacing system has potential applications for ALS patients and Ducko believes the system could potentially be used for those with other types of acute lung injury.
Whitson is one of about 250 patients worldwide to undergo this procedure, which brings her closer to one of her goals: becoming a spokesperson for teens about the dangers of getting into a car with a drunk driver—which she did on the night of her accident at age 17.
The day after her procedure at BWH, she was discharged and spent several weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. She is gradually being weaned off the ventilator, practicing daily with the new device as her diaphragm strengthens.
The thought of Jessica’s eventual independence from the ventilator offers peace of mind to her mother. “With the ventilator, you always have to have a plug nearby, and if you go out, you need to bring extra battery packs and know exactly how long you have on those batteries,” she said. “There’s always that point where it could just shut down, and it’s always in the back of your mind.”
Jessica Whitson simply doesn’t have time for that. “I would eventually like to go to college at the University of New Hampshire—by myself,” she emphasizes with a grin.
Jessica Whitson, left, is joined by Ron Manucci, RRT-NPS, of Spaulding Hospital Respiratory Care, Christopher Ducko, MD, of BWH, and mother Kelli Whitson.