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The Eloesser flap thoracostomy window was initially described by Leo Eloesser in 1935 and later modified by Symbas and coworkers as a surgical treatment option for patients with tuberculosis and pleural space infections associated with bronchopleural fistulae.
Two simultaneous goals of the thoracostomy flap, as it was initially described, were to allow passive drainage of the infected pleural space and the creation of a one-way valve that would allow egress of fluid from the chest cavity without the return of air. The intent of this one-way valve comprising autologous tissue was to facilitate expansion of the remaining lung parenchyma to fill the thoracic space. Following the introduction of more efficacious drugs for the treatment of tuberculosis, the need for surgical therapies for tuberculosis has nearly disappeared. Similarly, the need for a true Eloesser flap thoracostomy, as it was initially described, has also dissipated. However, the concept of an epithelialized thoracostomy window remains important for the treatment of severe pleural space infections that are occasionally found in medically unfit patients who are not strong enough to tolerate a surgical decortication or a muscle flap transposition. The procedure described herein has retained the eponym “Eloesser flap,” although it does not completely represent the anatomy or the intended function of the flap as initially described.
Fortunately, the majority of pleural space infections are diagnosed within a time frame that is conducive for treatment with closed thoracostomy tubes with or without the instillation of fibrinolytic agents. This management is often sufficient to allow adequate drainage of the infected pleural space and complete expansion of the lung. When a tube thoracostomy is inadequate, surgical decortication is usually successful in achieving these goals. However, an Eloesser flap thoracostomy window is a viable option when the patient is thought to be too ill for a decortication or if the lung does not completely fill the thoracic cavity following a decortication.
Alternative adaptations of the thoracosctomy window, such as the Clagett window, have also been described as an option for similar patients.
The greatest differences between the Eloesser flap and a Clagett window is that the Clagett window is considerably larger than an Eloesser flap and that the Clagett window was designed to be a temporary measure to allow decontamination of the pleural space with a subsequent closure. In contrast, the Eloesser flap is intended to create a permanent drainage window into the pleural space.
Although potentially lifesaving, the Eloesser flap window commits the patient to a prolonged period of dressing changes and frequent annoyances with soiling of clothes and bed linens. Thus, the Eloesser flap technique continues to evolve. In an effort to minimize the duration of dressing changes and to better contain drainage, several authors have augmented the thoracostomy window with a vacuum-assisted closure (VAC) device.
This may be a viable treatment option for patients with an empyema and a moderate sized residual pleural space. In a retrospective review of their experience, the results of patients whose treatment included a wound VAC were substantially better than the historical controls in their own series and also better than the experiences of most surgeons describing the outcomes of patients previously treated with Eloesser flaps.
The operation described herein represents a modified Eloesser thoracostomy window with an inferiorly based soft tissue flap. Although this procedure commits the patient to a prolonged treatment course with serial dressing changes, it is also a potentially lifesaving procedure for patients with little physiologic reserve and a severely infected pleural space.
The most important aspect related to the creation of an Eloesser flap is the selection of an optimal position on the chest wall that allows effective passive dependent drainage, relatively easy access for open wound packing, and patient comfort.
When contemplating an Eloesser flap thoracostomy in patients with smaller pleural effusions than the one indicated here, it is critical to be convinced that the expanded portions of the lung are adherent to the chest wall. Otherwise, the thoracostomy window may allow further collapse of the ipsilateral lung, by eliminating the negative intrathoracic pressure.
Postoperatively the wound is packed at least daily with gauze moistened with normal saline; however, the wound often requires dressing changes two or three times a day in the first week following surgery. It is the author's preference to use Kerlex gauze rolls for packing. When multiple rolls are required to fill the thoracic cavity, the ends of consecutive rolls are tied together to insure that all of the packing material is removed at the time of the next dressing change.
It is important to realize that the patient will require dressing changes for several weeks, and that the skin surrounding the thoracostomy is at risk for severe irritation and blistering from frequent dressing changes. It has been the author's preference recently to use Medipore H softcloth surgical tape, which has minimized skin trauma despite being directly applied to the skin. An alternate strategy for skin protection includes the application of Duoderm dressings to the skin, and then taping the dressings to the Duoderm rather than directly to the skin.
In a relatively large single-institution review of 78 patients treated with modified Eloesser flaps, the two most common etiologies necessitating an Eloesser flap were parapneumonic effusions and postresection empyemas. These indications were far more common than tuberculosis, which represented only 9% of patients. In this series there were four perioperative deaths, three of which were attributed to sepsis. The mean intensive care and hospital length of stay were 5 ± 12 and 16 ± 17 days, respectively. Long-term follow-up did not identify any ongoing issues related to the Eloesser flap, contributing to poor patient outcomes. However, most wounds required dressing changes for 3 months.
Smaller series have included occasional late postoperative deaths following an Eloesser flap procedure. Palmen and coworkers reported an erosion into the pulmonary artery several months after the Eloesser flap was created,
and the author is also aware of other similar cases of massive bleeding through the thoracostomy window well outside of the immediate postoperative period. Because of this potential complication as well as the time required for sufficient thoracostomy closure, augmentation of the Eloesser flap with a wound VAC device has been utilized in a small number of patients.
As our collective experience with wound VACs in thoracostomy windows grows, this technique may become the preferred treatment strategy.
Despite requiring a prolonged treatment course with frequent dressing changes, the Eloesser flap may likely represent a lifesaving operation that is the least invasive means to adequately control the infected pleural space. Adaptations will likely continue to refine this procedure in the years to come.