How Lifesaving Organs For Transplant Go Missing In Transit

khn.org
8 min read
fairly difficult
Scores of organs — mostly kidneys — are trashed each year and many more become critically delayed while being shipped on commercial airliners, a new investigation finds.
This story also ran on Reveal . This story can be republished for free ( details ).

When a human heart was left behind by mistake on a Southwest Airlines plane in 2018, transplant officials downplayed the incident. They emphasized that the organ was used for valves and tissues, not to save the life of a waiting patient, so the delay was inconsequential.

"It got to us on time, so that was the most important thing," said Doug Wilson, an executive vice president for LifeNet Health, which runs the Seattle-area operation that processed the tissue.

That high-profile event was dismissed as an anomaly, but a new analysis of transplant data finds that a startling number of lifesaving organs are lost or delayed after being shipped on commercial flights, the delays often rendering them unusable.

In a nation where nearly 113,000 people are waiting for transplants, scores of organs — mostly kidneys — are discarded after they don't reach their destination in time.

Between 2014 and 2019, nearly 170 organs could not be transplanted and almost 370 endured "near misses," with delays of two hours or more, after transportation problems, according to an investigation by Kaiser Health News and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The media organizations reviewed data from more than 8,800 organ and tissue shipments collected voluntarily and shared upon request by the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, the nonprofit government contractor that oversees the nation's transplant system. Twenty-two additional organs classified as transportation "failures" were ultimately able to be transplanted elsewhere.

Surgeons themselves often go to hospitals to collect and transport hearts, which survive only four to six hours out of the body. But kidneys and pancreases — which have longer shelf lives — often travel commercial, as cargo. As such, they can end up missing connecting flights or delayed like lost luggage. Worse still, they are typically tracked with a primitive…
JoNel Aleccia
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