Doctors in Zigong successfully grafted a pig's skin onto the body of a 10-year-old boy who suffered burns on over 70 percent of his body.
Shen Yongqi, 10, is from Chang Shan Town in Zigong's Rong County. He was lighting firecrackers one day last December when a flame unexpectedly burst forth, setting the family crops on fire and leaving the child with serious burns over most of his body. Both legs were covered in burns, his hands were badly deformed, and, on his face, only his right eye and mouth were left unaffected.
The burns were life-threatening, but his family was unable to afford immediate medical treatment. By the middle of January, he had been transferred to another hospital, and the boy's local community had managed to raise RMB160,000 toward his medical expenses.
But by then, the under layers of his skin were beginning to show signs of an infection that could lead to blood poisoning; the need for the skin graft was urgent. However, because of the large surface area of skin that would need to be replaced, it would be impossible to find a human cadaver skin donor for the surgery.
Burn specialist Wei Ping explained that doctors have been able to make skin grafts with pig skin since the 1970s. The alternative to using a pig skin would be to use an artificial, manufactured skin, but the cost is prohibitive: The price to transplant such skin on both legs would be RMB200,000. When Sichuan-based New Hope Dairy learned of the incident, the company volunteered to supply the pig skin donor free of charge to the patient.
The team of doctors made the 200-kilometer journey to New Hope Group's pig farm in Yijiaping Town of Santai County, Mianyang on Thursday afternoon. There, they told the employees their requirements for an ideal pig: It should weigh 50 kilograms or less and not be older than 6 months; it should not have been diseased or been given antibiotics within the last three months; its skin should be of a uniform white color and free of any wounds or cosmetic irregularities; and the farm must have been steam disinfected regularly.
Ten minutes later, three small pigs were selected out of the more than 100 at the farm and brought to the doctors for inspection. Wei Ping asked the farmers to trot them around the pen so he could choose the one that looked the strongest. After selecting a 35-kg pig, Wei Ping examined it to ensure that its skin showed no irregularities. That pig's market value was RMB1,000.
With the assistance of the pig farmers, the doctors restrained the resisting pig and loaded it into the ambulance. The youngest doctor on the team, Xiao Li, said he had ridden in ambulances with many human patients, but that was the first time he'd ever ridden with a pig. They reached the hospital by 8 that evening.
A temporary "operating table" and disinfection station had been erected in the hospital parking lot. The still-struggling pig was delivered onto table. Five or six medical staff restrained the pig while Xiao Li severed its neck. Later he said that while he had done experiments on rabbits and mice in medical school, he never expected that one day he would need to kill a pig. Nonetheless, he was unfazed: "The anataomy is similar; right below the neck is the aorta, which is where you need to cut." Ten minutes later, the pig was dead, and Xiao Li's coworkers congratulated him on his masterful slaughter, joking that he should consider a career change.
Within the next 25 minutes, the pig's skin had been cleaned and shaved, and four doctors began separating the skin from the body. Twelve minutes later, the 50-by-30-centimeter hid from the pig's back had been removed.
While some doctors continued working on removal of the skin from the underbelly and the hindquarters, others took the first piece to the head of the burns department, Ye Xiaoli. Ye removed all excess fat and skin from the original piece, leaving behind a transparent, paper-thin layer of skin. The whole process took around 50 minutes.
Once removed, the skin can be cleaned only with cool water as hot water can burn it and render it unuseable for the graft. After it had been cleaned numerous times, it was put into a freezer that would store it at negative 50 degrees Celsius until the next morning.
On Friday morning, Xiao Yongqi was wheeled into the operating room. A team of more than 10 surgeons, led by the burn specialist Wei Ping, began the operation.
Xiao Yongqi would be put under anaesthesia, but even that posed a risk: He could die from even a slight overdose. Blood loss during surgery could also be too great for him to survive.
By 1 p.m., Xiao Yongqi's legs had been covered with the pig's skin and sewn up, and doctors began the process of grafting hundreds of fingernail-sized pieces of Xiao Yongqi's own skin onto the windows in the pig skin. Xiao Yongqi was released from the operating room at 3:35 p.m., seven hours after the surgery began.
Wei Ping declared the surgery a success and said that Xiao Yongqi would be under observation to ensure that the skin was growing back normally. In around two weeks, he explained, the pig skin should start falling off by itself while Xiao Yongqi's own skin regenerated. Xiao Yongqi would need at least three or four additional surgeries.
Image source QQ