Grounded planes disrupt transplants

Donor heart and liver went to waste in N.M.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 16, 2001|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - At least a dozen organ and tissue transplants have been disrupted by last week's grounding of air traffic, which kept tissue from being flown cross-country and prevented surgeons from traveling to harvest donor hearts, livers and kidneys.

In most cases, the lack of air transport meant patients within driving distance received organs even if they were lower on the priority list. But some organs and donor tissue went unused.

At 3 a.m. Tuesday, New Mexico nurse Charlotte Horton had found matches in California and Utah for the heart, liver and kidneys of a 46-year-old woman.

Coordinators made arrangements for qualified surgeons to fly in, harvest the organs and bring them back to the patients. Horton scheduled an operating room for 10 a.m.

But a couple of hours later, after the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all U.S. flights, Horton learned that the surgeons wouldn't be arriving.

Doctors were able to transplant the kidneys to two local patients, but because local physicians were not trained to work with hearts or livers, the other organs had to be cremated with the donor.

The flight cancellations dashed the hopes of a 10-year-old Sacramento, Calif., girl waiting for the liver at Stanford University Medical Center. In Salt Lake City, a 24-year-old man remained at home waiting for a new heart.

"It's such a waste," said Melanie De Silva, of University Hospital in Albuquerque. "It's one more thing you can blame on the terrorists."

Donation workers in Iowa did succeed in an emergency effort to transport heart valves and skin to Virginia in a 20-hour trip by car.

Such tissue, which must be processed within 24 hours of procurement, usually goes to a Virginia Beach processing center by air carriers such as Federal Express.

The grounding of air traffic forced workers at the Iowa Donor Network in Iowa City to hit the road late Wednesday with two sets of heart valves and three sections of skin, which could be used for burn patients in New York or Washington.

"When it became clear the airlines would be delayed longer, we decided we had to get the tissue out there," said network spokesman Paul Sodders.

After a stop in Kentucky to pick up a set of heart valves, the four Iowa couriers - led by a liver-transplant recipient named Tom Jorgensen - made it to Virginia Beach in time Thursday afternoon.

One of the closer calls came early Wednesday when a chartered plane carrying a heart from Anchorage, Alaska, to a 21-year-old patient in Tacoma, Wash., was intercepted by a Navy F-16 fighter. Although the chartered plane was forced to land 80 miles from its destination in Seattle, a helicopter was allowed to carry the heart the rest of the way, arriving at the hospital in time for a transplant.

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