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9th December 2014

Meet the baby girl saved by ‘life support’

Wriggling around in her mother’s arms, Ruby Munoz looks like any other 10-month-old child – alert, active and curious about the world.

But when Ruby was six weeks of age, she suddenly became seriously ill and was rushed to hospital.

Her heart unexpectedly failed but a machine, which did the job of her heart and lungs for two months, saved her life.

For Ruby and her family, a return visit to the hospital where she had spent much of her early life, was a joyous experience. For medical and nursing staff, it was a pleasure to see her thriving on her own without being attached to machines and monitors.

This life-saving technology is not without controversy. Baby Ivor Benson was born six weeks after his mother, Robin, suffered a brain haemorrhage and was declared brain dead.

The family decided to keep Robin on life support until Ivor’s chances of surviving outside the womb had increased. Then, at 28 weeks, Ivor was born. He too was kept alive thanks to modern life support technology.

Ivor’s father, Dylan, lost his wife less than a year after they were married but is grateful to have a son who doctors say has a good chance of developing into a healthy adult.

Some raised ethical questions about keeping Robins body alive to save Ivor while others rallied around the family. Online donations totalling more than $160,000 were made in support of Dylan and Ivor.

Survival of the sickest

The fact that survival rates for children born prematurely have improved dramatically in recent decades has been celebrated by families who came close to losing their babies.

But, as this BBC report explains, babies born months before their due date can face ongoing health problems throughout their lives. This can be difficult for the children and their parents, raising profound ethical dilemmas for society about how and when to intervene.

Sadly, not everyone on life support survives. When this happens, one family’s heartbreak can bring bittersweet joy to several others.

Even after brain death, respirators and heart bypass systems can keep the body alive long enough for healthy organs to be harvested and delivered to people waiting for a transplant.

This has helped improve the number and the quality of organs available for transplantation.

Watch this video about the journey of transplant organs. Or skip ahead to the 4-minute mark to see Mary Smith, a 38-year-old nurse whose life was saved by a double-lung transplant – a life-supporting combination of technology and human generosity.

What’s a life support machine anyway?

We often read that someone is ‘on life support’, conjuring images of tubes, catheters and beeping machines. But life support can mean a range of things. Broadly defined it’s simply a way of keeping the body alive by replacing a failing bodily function:

Artificial nutrition and hydration: feeding people by tube into the stomach, the intestine or a vein can help to get vital nutrition into the body.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR): when someone stops breathing, CPR can help to restart the heart and breathing. In some instances, this can be done using electrical stimulation or drugs.

Mechanical ventilation: when the lungs fail, a ventilator or respirator can do their job by forcing air into the lungs via a tube inserted into the windpipe through the nose or mouth.

Kidney dialysis: kidney failure can result in death if harmful waste material is not filtered from your blood. Dialysis can be done in hospitals or at home. It is a kind of life support measure that keeps people alive who, in the past, would have faced a very bleak prognosis.

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