Donor Heart Arrives Intact Despite Helicopter Crash, Staffer Dropping the Organ

Healthcare providers at Keck Hospital of USC in Los Angeles were shocked when a transport helicopter crashed on the roof of the building when trying to deliver a life-saving donor heart for a transplant patient. However, that was only the beginning of a long, herculean effort to save the organ and prepare it for surgery. For the staffers at Keck, it was just one of those days where everything seems to go wrong.

Failure to Land

It all started last Friday when a transport helicopter took off from a local hospital to deliver the organ to Keck Hospital. It crashed on the helicopter pad on top of the building after failing to land. The entire scene was captured by a bystander on the ground. 

The video shows the helicopter losing control just a short distance from the landing area. The crash left the chopper on its side, surrounded by pools of a mysterious fluid.

As pharmacy intern Bahador Aghakoochek told a local news outlet, “I was inside the building working and then once we heard everyone run out and went out and saw it. It was like people were saying, ‘Oh the helicopter the blade of the helicopter was coming down or something.’”

Firefighters soon rushed onto the scene; the organ appeared to be unharmed. The pilot suffered minor injuries. There were two other people aboard the aircraft, but they denied medical treatment.

According to Emma Duncan, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, the private aircraft was an AgustaWestland A109 medical helicopter, owned by Leonardo Company, considered a prominent player in the aerospace, defense, and security industries.

A Bump in the Road

Firefighters then handed off the organ to employees of the hospital. Just when things were starting to turn around, the staffer tripped while walking across the roof, sending the organ pummeling towards the ground, also captured in the video, courtesy of KTLA News in Los Angeles.

“I can see that happening because there’s a lot of debris that’s on the landing pad itself,” a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson told the news station.

Luckily, the organ was still in good condition. “The organ is currently being safely transplanted,” the hospital announced.

The press release goes on to say, “On Friday, Nov. 6, at approximately 3:15 p.m., a helicopter crashed on the helipad on the roof of Keck Hospital of USC. The passengers aboard the helicopter are being treated locally. Nobody on the ground or in the hospital was injured and patient care has not been disrupted.”

However, there is no update on the health of the transplant patient.

What Went Wrong?

It’s still unclear why the helicopter went down in the first place. Leonardo Company has yet to release a statement. It may have been a mechanical failure, poor landing conditions, human error, or some combination of the three.

According to the hospital, “Keck Medicine is working closely with the Los Angeles Fire Department and Los Angeles Police Department to manage and investigate the incident.”

Transporting donor organs can be a stressful business. The cost of operating a helicopter can be prohibitive for some health networks and transplant patients. That’s why many donor organs travel on commercial flights, which greatly reduces the cost of the procedure. While patients and providers don’t have to worry about the plane crashing, sending organs by commercial plane can be risky, as well.

Recent reporting from Kaiser Health Network shows that a shocking number of life-saving organs are lost or delayed after being shipped on commercial flights. These delays often leave the organs unusable. 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.

There are currently nearly 113,000 people waiting for transplants across the U.S., with around 20 people dying each day waiting for organs. Donor kidneys are usually in high demand, but they are often discarded if they don’t reach their destination in time. Both kidneys and the pancreas tend to have a longer “shelf life,” but transplant hearts are much more sensitive. They can usually only survive between four to six hours once they leave the body.

Dr. David Axelrod, a transplant surgeon at the University of Iowa, says, “We’ve had organs that are left on airplanes, organs that arrive at an airport and then can’t get taken off the aircraft in a timely fashion and spend an extra two or three or four hours waiting for somebody to get them.”

There is currently no national system for transporting donor organs. The U.S. relies on a patchwork of 58 nonprofit organizations called organ procurement organizations, or OPOs, to collect the organs from facilities and package them.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), is one of the many non-profit organizations that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. It estimates that around 1 in every 6 transplanted kidneys is shipped nationally on commercial flights, but most of them get to their destination safe and sound.

Roger Brown, the current head of the UNOS, says, “We’re never going to get rid of flight delays. We’re never going to get rid of human error. We’re never going to get rid of the person who’s [trying to be] a little too helpful and perhaps puts it someplace special, which then maybe creates issues downstream.”

We’re so grateful that this heart made it to Keck Hospital safely. It’s a reminder of just how stressful delivering donor organs can be. 

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