Last week, media reports surfaced that a human heart was left behind on an airplane, offering a rare glimpse at the nation's transplant system and the network of nonprofits that collect and transport donated organs and tissue.
The heart was still onboard
The heart was travelling from Sacramento to Seattle on Southwest Airlines plane bound for Dallas. A courier was supposed to take possession and transport it to tissue processing facility in a Seattle suburb, according to LifeNet Health, a nonprofit organization that runs the tissue processing facility near Seattle where the heart was destined. The heart's valves were to be removed for transplant.
About an hour and a half into the flight to Dallas, Southwest learned there was a problem: The heart was still onboard.
What happened? An investigation is underway.
The pilot immediately made an announcement and turned the plane around to go back to Seattle.
Initial testing showed no damage to the valves, but an investigation is underway to find out what exactly happened.
Sierra Donor Services, the organ procurement organization (OPO), that obtained the heart, said the courier did not arrive in time to collect the heart.
However, a spokesperson for LifeNet said Southwest failed to take the heart off the plane, and that the courier was the one who discovered the error.
Southwest acknowledged that the crew did not remove the heart from its cargo department.
A process 'subject to human error'
There are 58 total organ procurement organizations OPOs—including LifeNet and Sierra Donor—that are chartered by the federal government to collect human organs. OPOs also sell to tissue processors, which prepare tissue, such as heart valves, for medical procedures, according to the Post.
But this is not the first time the human organ transportation process has been "subject to human error," according to the Post.
In 2014, a human pancreas collected by a Miami OPO was left out on a counter for almost two hours due to improper delivery. And, in 2013, a kidney that was not accepted for transplant was returned to the wrong location after a courier "failed to follow ... internal policies," Mike Seely, executive director of the OPO Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank, said.
None of these incidents affected the health of the organ recipients, but, according to Greg Segal, co-founder of activist group Organize, which is critical of OPOs, "the cases the public hears about are really only the tip of the iceberg." He added, "Organs are lost every day. And every time they are, a patient on the waiting list dies unnecessarily."
Separately, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) last week said that the plane mishap is "another example of a need for more oversight of the entire organ donation system." He added that the "system has operated in the darkness for decades and Congress and the administration need to fix [it]" (Kindy/Bernstein, Washington Post, 12/14; Oliver, USA Today, 12/14).
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