It sounds like a scene straight out of Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, but this stranger-than-fiction tale of a calamitous heart transplant really happened and thankfully it has a happy ending. Following a helicopter crash, a donor heart intended for transplantation was remarkably retrieved from the wreckage only to be dashed across the floor as a physician carrying it tripped on a roof support. Incredibly, nobody involved in the crash was seriously injured and the star-crossed organ was deemed fit for donation.
The heart was on its way to the Keck Hospital in Los Angeles when the series of unfortunate events unfolded. Two members of the Keck Medicine of USC transplant team were onboard the aircraft, which crashed at approximately 3:15 pm on November 6. An investigation is underway with the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other government agencies to ascertain what led to the crash, but the findings won’t be released due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. According to a report from the BBC, only the pilot suffered minor injuries from the crash that saw the helicopter flipped onto its side.
In the midst of the chaos following the crash, emergency workers were able to retrieve the heart from the wreckage, which was then handed to a member of the hospital staff. However, our unlucky organ suffered another blow as it was dropped by the doctor who tripped on a metal disc attached to the roof, sending the bagged heart rolling across the floor. It was once again retrieved and taken inside for assessment and incredibly was found to still be fit for donation, having not sustained any damage from the day’s events. That’s one tough ticker.
According to the United States Health Resources & Services Administration, a donor heart can survive for around four to six hours once extracted from an organ donor, most of whom have suffered irreversible brain damage and cannot be resuscitated. Donors must be kept superficially alive on life support while the operation to remove organs is carried out to prevent cell death, which happens when organs are starved of oxygen due to lack of blood flow.
A heart for transplantation will be stopped in the body of the donor using a wash of potassium solution, removed, and placed into a container of preservation solution. This is then transported, along with a sample of the donor’s blood, in an icy cooler to the recipient. The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) are responsible for matching hearts to recipients and their decisions are based on suitability, severity of the recipient's need, and travel time as the longer the organ is in transit the higher chance there is of it becoming unviable.
With this in mind, it’s incredible to think that the heart that found itself rolling across the roof of Keck Hospital still made its way to the operating room in good enough nick for transplantation. The hospital has reported that the operation was successful, and the recipient is recovering well.
“While saddened that two people on our transport team sustained injuries, we feel very fortunate that they were not life-threatening and we were able to provide our patient with a new heart,” said cardiac surgeon Mark Cunningham who performed the transplant surgery in a statement from the hospital. “The Keck Medicine of USC team displayed quick thinking, strong leadership and a steadfast dedication to patient care, ensuring the best possible outcome from this incident.”