How the lungs brought by the drone saved the life of an Ontario man

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How the lungs brought by the drone saved the life of an Ontario man

An engineer by trade and a lover of drones, 63-year-old Hodak was eager to be the first transplant patient to receive lungs delivered by an unmanned drone, completed by UHN and Unither Bioelectronique.

The lungs travelled in a purpose-built drone from Toronto Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital, both part of the UHN. The journey lasted just six minutes, but is one Hodak’s doctor believes could change the future of organ delivery.

“Having no air, I was on oxygen in industrial quantities of 25 litres a minute of oxygen, which is pretty much as much as you could put in. And now I’m able to breathe, and I’m almost sometimes surprised about breathing,” Hodak told CBC News.

Hodak is proud to be the guinea pig. The Ottawa resident was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2019 and says, before the surgery, trying to breathe was “unbearable.”

Story Highlights

  • That drone carried a pair of lungs 1.5 kilometers across downtown Toronto in what University Health Network believes was a world-first delivery that Hodak had agreed to be part of in September. 

  • Lungs for transplant delivered by drone for 1st time: health networkToronto’s University Health Network says it has completed the first double lung transplant where lungs were delivered by drone. 2:12

Hodak with his wife, Suzanne, before he fell ill. (Submitted by University Health Network.)

Hodak’s condition deteriorated in early 2021 and he was told his only option was a lung transplant. He was placed on the waiting list and rented a condo in Toronto in June with his wife to be close enough to the hospital, should a donor organ become available.

“It was a race against time,” Hodak said. Drone delivery trials were underway

Meanwhile, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, the director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program at UHN, was trialling the delivery of organs by drone. Keshavjee said he had been studying organ preservation for transport “all my life.” “We’ve used planes and helicopters and cars and vans, and oftentimes there’s a challenge in logistics. But it seems not right to use a whole Learjet to transport something that weighs only two kilograms,” said Keshavjee.

While organs must usually be transported via air to a local airport, and then transported by road to a hospital, this delivery method eliminates the need for airports altogether. Drones, however, are automated, meaning there were fewer transport or logistical issues and no need for pilots — who also needed to be changed if there was a “time out” in the delivery process.  Still, there are hurdles in a busy, populated area.

The unmanned drone makes a practice flight over Toronto as workers looks on. (Jason van Bruggen/Unither Bioélectronique/The Canadian Press) The team undertook 53 test flights between the two hospitals and had to develop a navigation system “that would not be interfered with.”

Keshavjee said they had to seek “a lot” of permission for the drone flight to take place, including from Health Canada and Nav Canada.  “Flying a drone in this city is [challenging], because it’s a populated area with a lot of radio frequency interference and also [lots of] people around. So if you can fly a drone in this city, then you can fly a drone anywhere.”