Woman kept alive for 6 days without lungs while surgeons waited for transplant donor

For six excruciating days, a Canadian woman was kept alive without her lungs by surgeons desperate to save her while waiting for an organ donor.

Melissa Benoit, 33, suffered from cystic fibrosis, a congenital disorder that causes a thick build-up of mucus in the lungs. But her condition last spring was far worse than that – a bad bout of the H1N1 virus left her with severely infected lungs that couldn't function.

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The infection had spread throughout her body and was resistant to antibiotics. Even a ventilator couldn't provide her system with enough oxygen to survive.

Her organs, one by one, began to shut down. She was drowning in mucus, pus and blood, doctors said.

"Melissa was dying before our eyes," said Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, a chief surgeon at Toronto General Hospital.

She desperately need a double transplant, but was too sick to undergo surgery. So physicians spoke with the woman's family and suggested removing both of Benoit's lungs - the source of her deadly infection - and keeping her alive with artificial breathing machines until a donor could be found.

Her family didn't hesitate. Do it, they said. Do it now.

"My mom said she was very calm listening to the doctors," Benoit told InsideEdition.com Thursday. "She knew I was going to come back. I'm going to chalk that up to mother's intuition."

It took surgeons nine hours to remove both organs. They inserted a portable artificial lung into her chest cavity, and hooked her to an external device that pumped oxygen-rich blood into her body.

Six days later, a donor was found.

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Benoit lost about two months of her life to being sick and undergoing surgery.

When she came to in the hospital, her muscles had so atrophied the only thing she could move was her tongue.

"I had to learn to hold my head up. I had to learn how to use my hands all over again. I had no strength," she said.

"It's been long, I won't lie," she said of her recovery. "I would cry. I was in so much pain - from my muscles, from my bones."

Every day, hospital staff forced her to get out of bed and walk, and to sit in a chair for at least an hour.

"It broke everyone's heart to make me sit there," she said. "My mom would pretend like we were at a spa. She'd bring water for me to soak my feet ... and paint my toenails to distract me."

After months of physical therapy, Benoit feels better than she has in decades. She can play with her 2-year-old daughter, Olivia. She can walk without wheezing. She can drive a car.

"Breathing feels oh, so different," she said. "I feel like I've never breathed up till now. I always felt like I was breathing through a straw.

"It's so different to feel air actually going into your lungs," she said.

She has experienced no signs of rejection, she said. She considers herself amazingly lucky.

"It's pretty unbelievable," she said. "It feels surreal."

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