Washing lungs and breathing better

A medical breakthrough is helping people who struggle with the most essential function of life.
May 3, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
Imagine not being able to breathe without struggling: every breath you take is work; every breath you take could be your last. That was the case for one man who became dependent on an oxygen tank to stay alive.

"It's nice to actually sit down and have a conversation without having to gasp for air," Robert Epperson told ABC30.

"He was very sick. He was very short of breath," Jihane Faress, MD, in the Pulmonary Medicine division at Cleveland Clinic and Epperson's doctor, told ABC30.

After suffering years from a misdiagnosis, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic discovered Epperson was actually suffering from a rare condition called pulmonary alveolar proteinosis, or PAP. The disease causes a protein called surfactant to build up in the air sacs of the lungs.

"Surfactant is a substance that we all need to keep our aveolar sac from closing off when we exhale, when we breathe out. So we need it, but too much of it is not a good thing," Dr. Faress said.

In a procedure, doctors fitted Epperson with a vest that shook his lungs, then pumped 30 liters of salt water through each lung.

"So you put it in and then you wash out. And you continue to wash because the stuff you get back looks very thick, almost like mayonnaise, and they get clearer and clearer as you wash out more lung," Dr. Faress explained.

Epperson is breathing, and talking, like a new man.

"Being able to just get up and do little things was tremendous for me," he said.

There are two types of adult pap. Epperson had the primary form, which is caused by an autoimmune response. A secondary form can be caused by exposure to toxins from the environment or associated with blood malignancy.

If you would like more information, please contact:

Andrea Pacetti
Cleveland Clinic

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