​​​​​Artur with his parents
Above centre, Artur, a victim of the nightclub fire in Brazil that claimed hundreds, with his parents. UHN lung expert Dr. Marcelo Cypel helped save Artur's life. (Photo: Juglans Alvarez)

As we look back on 2013, we celebrate the courage that lives at UHN with the ‘Celebration of Courage’ series. In this second part, we honour the courage of Dr. Marcelo Cypel, a UHN lung specialist - who, after seeing images of victims of a nightclub fire in Brazil, boarded a plane for the country to try and save their lives.

On January 27, 2013, Dr. Marcelo Cypel turned on the TV and was horrified.

A fire had broken out in a nightclub in Brazil– killing hundreds and leaving many others critically injured.

News footage showed those who survived gasping for air outside the club as firefighters fought desperately to get more people out.

“The TV images of young people performing CPR on their friends in front of the club stayed with me,” said the UHN thoracic surgeon and lung specialist.

So much so, he felt he needed to help.

Special expertise

The UHN doctor is trained in the Extra-Corporeal Lung Support (ECLS) Program and an expert using the ECLS machine, which performs the lungs’ essential function.

He knew his expertise in this area would be of great use to medical teams caring for victims with smoke inhalation to their lungs.

Phone consultations took place with local medical teams, and the Brazilian Minister of Health asked him to help identify victims who would benefit from the ECLS treatment.

At UHN, the ECLS team, comprised of thoracic surgeons, intensivists, respirologists, perfusionists and nurses, had emergency strategy meetings and promptly developed a plan.

By February 2, Dr. Cypel was on a flight to his native land.

'It was very shocking'

Within hours, he was in the operating room, working desperately to save the lives of as many victims as he could.

“It was very shocking to see such young people side by side with lung problems, amputations and burns,” said Dr. Cypel, noting that when he arrived in Porto Alegre, 50 patients were being treated in five hospital intensive care units.

Within two days, Dr. Cypel had assessed the situation and identified patients who could be saved with artificial lung support.

TGH chief perfusionist Cyril Serrick and ICU nurse Lina Karkanawi then joined Dr. Cypel in Brazil to assist in training the local health care teams.

One of the patients Dr. Cypel identified for ECLS treatment was a young man named Artur.

Initially, local medical staff hesitated to perform the treatment on him, since attempts with other patients in the past had not been very successful.

But with Dr. Cypel’s coaching, assistance and careful post-procedure patient management, the young man’s lung function improved dramatically and he survived.

“It was very rewarding to be helping and saving patients that otherwise would have had a dismal chance of survival,” Dr. Cypel said.

In addition to helping with fire victims, Dr. Cypel also lent his expertise to a man with pneumonia who had only been given an hour to live. Thanks to Dr. Cypel and ECLS support, the man survived.

Dr. Marcelo Cypel
Above, Dr. Marcelo Cypel with life-saving ECLS equipment that helped save lives in Brazil.
(Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star)

While in Brazil, Cypel, Cyril and Lina also took the opportunity to teach local medical teams.

They presented ECLS workshops to doctors, perfusionists and nurses. The Brazilian teams learned how to select appropriate candidates for treatment, realized the need for a specialized “team” and specific practices to use the machine successfully.​​

The trip opened the door to plans for future multi-disciplinary educational symposiums.

Lina said the experience was both “humbling and amazing”.

“I met a wonderful group of dedicated and enthusiastic nurses and doctors. It was a very enriching experience for all,” she said, adding, “It was also a very proud moment to be a part of UHN and be able to bring our expertise and technology around the globe.”

For Cypel, the experience was not only rewarding, but inspiring.

“You see things in the news, but when you see it firsthand, when you see the families– families so happy that their child has a chance and is still alive— I think we really made a difference for a few patients, but in the future we can make a difference to many,” he said.​


​Hélène Campbell​ celebrates 22nd birthday - and new chance at life

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