A FIVE-year-old boy is going home after his life was saved by the first-of-its-kind double lung transplant.

Joseph Nicholson, from Catterick, has been in hospital for nine months after becoming seriously ill with a lung condition.

Doctors at the Freeman and Great North Children's Hospitals, in Newcastle, have been working with medics in the US to become the first team in the UK to successfully use an ECMO machine as a bridge to a double lung transplant in a child.

Fiona Nicholson, his mother, said: “It’s been a rollercoaster of a journey and throughout we’ve tried really hard not to think past the next day.

The Northern Echo:

"We didn’t want to panic and think about worst case scenarios – every time we spoke to the doctors we focused on what was the next step to getting Joseph better and we took every little obstacle and every success as it came."

Train-loving Joseph was healthy until last summer but after developing what initially appeared to be mild pneumonia, rapidly deteriorated and his condition progressed to profound lung failure.

After receiving aggressive and extensive treatment over several months, his clinical team and family were faced with a critical dilemma – either Joseph received an urgent lung transplant or died from his condition.

In order to keep Joseph alive while he waited for a potential donor, doctors used a specially configured ECMO arrangement which, essentially, kept him continuously on a heart-lung bypass machine.

ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung that oxygenates the blood and while it is used by a handful of centres in the UK for babies and children with severe heart or lung failure, it is much less common to be used as a bridge to lung transplantation.

As this approach had not been successfully tried before in the UK, doctors at the Freeman and the RVI collaborated with colleagues from the United States to support Joseph until a lung donor from Europe was found.

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Joseph, 5, is now recovering at home

Consultant paediatric respiratory physician Matthew Thomas said: "This was an extremely unique and rare set of circumstances from day one – Joseph walked into hospital with what appeared to be a chest infection, now he’s leaving nine months later with a new set of lungs. It’s phenomenal he’s alive.

“It was not without risks and there have been some ups and downs but we knew it merited an attempt to try and do this for Joseph - and his family - and the ECMO provided a way – a bridge - to get him to lung transplantation, when previously he would not have survived.

“We knew this had never been successfully used as an approach in the UK but having sought advice from centres in the US - and with the skill and expertise of the teams at Great North Children’s Hospital and the Freeman - we were in a position where we could support him and give him the best chance until he could get a transplant."

Joseph still needs ventilation and has a tracheostomy so is isolating at home with his parents, Fiona and Gary and younger brother Henry.

Mrs Nicholson added: "The week before he went to hospital we had been on holiday at the seaside and while Joseph was a little under the weather, we thought he was coming down with a cold.

"We could never have imagined that within a month we were told he needed a lung transplant – it’s so cruel, your worst nightmare.

“But Joseph has been absolutely amazing throughout – he is autistic which in some ways has made the situation a bit easier as he is very accepting of what mummy and daddy tell him - and has just got on and coped with things.

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Dr Malcolm Brodlie and Dr Matthew Thomas

“He’s doing really well - he can get out of bed himself, he can walk around and he plays with his trains. He might need another operation at a later date on his diaphragm but he’s getting stronger all the time."

The family now wants to raise awareness about organ transplant.

Mrs Nicholson said: "We had never realised a donor could come from Europe, nor that it could be several months before a suitable donor was found but we were lucky and will always be thankful – it was a miracle really.

“We would really like to say thank you to Matt, Malcolm Brodlie (consultant paediatric respiratory physician) and all the team and surgeons at Newcastle Hospitals – they have been absolutely wonderful and are our heroes.”