Health

We now know where Seattle’s airborne heart was headed after Southwest flight was turned around

The human heart that missed a connection in Seattle was headed to a tissue processor.

The human heart that was left on a Southwest Airlines flight after someone forgot to unload it in Seattle over the weekend was being sent to an area tissue processor to recover valves.

Deanna Santana of Sierra Donor Services in Sacramento, Calif., said the organ-procurement organization sent the heart through a courier, who picked it up in Sacramento for shipment to Seattle. The valves will be used for a transplant, though there is no designated patient yet.

“The most important part is that no one was waiting,” she said.

The heart was taken to LifeNet Health, a Renton-based tissue bank. LifeNet was notified by the courier that the heart was delayed, but that it would be received within the time frame required. Hearts must be received within 48 hours after the donor’s death, said Doug Wilson, LifeNet executive vice president. He said the tissue bank often receives shipments through commercial flights.

The heart was received 12 hours before it would have been unusable.  “Despite the detour, all is well,” Santana said.

The disclosure of the heart’s destination and purpose was welcome news for passengers who initially reacted in horror on Sunday thinking that their plane was carrying a heart needed for a transplant patient. But some said they were frustrated that they may have been misled into thinking the return to Seattle was more critical than it was, and questioned why their plane didn’t continue on to Dallas.

“As it turns out, there was nothing critical about the shipment,” said Dr. Andrew Gottschalk, who didn’t arrive at his home in New Orleans until the next day because of the delay. “The shipment may as well have been a suitcase.”

There’s no time limit for the valves to go to a recipient once they’ve been preserved at a tissue bank, but there is the time limit to have it processed, said Dr. Edward Verrier, senior surgeon at the University of Washington Medical Center, who emphasized that UW Medicine was not involved in the incident.

LifeNet would have received the heart with about 15 hours left for processing if it had been unloaded at the correct time. The three-hour delay from the time the plane took off, turned around and then landed back at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport brought that down to 12 hours.

If the plane had flown to Dallas on time and then immediately flown back, the processing window would have been cut down to less than seven hours.

Sierra Donor Services recovered the heart intending for its four valves to be used in future surgical procedures, the organization said. It was prepared and packaged by the courier, and then delivered to Southwest in Sacramento. The process would have been different depending on the procedure; Sierra and LifeCenter Northwest said they would never use commercial flight for a heart transplant.

The organization reached out to the family of the donor to keep them updated about the delay, executive director Monica Johnson said by email. The family is “relieved their loved one’s heart valves were received and will be able to help others.”

Sierra didn’t provide the name of the donor or his family, but included a brief statement from a family spokesperson that the family is “thankful he will be able to help others.”

As the heart made its way back to its intended destination, the Southwest passengers were told to deplane because the aircraft had a mechanical issue. Already upset and angry about the incident, some passengers asked crew members to make sure there weren’t any hearts left on the new flight, recalled passenger Aleksei Behl. They arrived in Dallas about 4 a.m. Monday.

On the outbound flight, Behl said, the pilot apologized, saying that Southwest “had not put their best foot forward, and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.”


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