A 24-year-old woman developed adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) after near-drowning due to attempted suicide. Conventional mechanical ventilation together with prone positioning and inhaled nitric oxide could not provide sufficient oxygenation. Surface tension data (gamma min = 27 dyn/cm, stability index = 0.341) from a lavage sample supported the hypothesis that the surfactant function of this patient was drastically reduced due to a washout effect by aspiration of fresh water. Porcine surfactant (Curosurf, 50 mg/kg for each lung) was instilled via fibreoptic bronchoscope. The partial arterial carbon dioxide pressure (paCO2) and fraction of inspired oxygen (FiO2) ratio as well as shunt fraction (Qs/Qt) improved impressively. When respiratory situation deteriorated again, surfactant application was repeated. Altogether, six bolus instillations of surfactant (total dose 300 mg/kg = 18,000 mg) were administered until the respiratory situation had stabilized and oxygenation could be maintained by conventional mechanical ventilation. The radiological findings did not show substantial amelioration. The patient developed septic shock and died 12 days after admission. Surfactant application apparently led to a significant improvement of the respiratory function. However, the outcome could not be influenced positively. The high cost of surfactant therapy prevents the more widespread early administration in patients at risk.