Last week's flight ban in the wake of the devastating terrorist hijackings unexpectedly may have saved the lives of at least 12 desperately ill organ transplant recipients who would not otherwise have received organs so soon.
The unforeseen outcome in the wake of the tragedy highlighted the dependence of the nation's organ procurement agencies on commercial aviation but also demonstrated their improvisational skills in harvesting and transporting vitally needed human organs that otherwise may have been lost.
An unidentified man received a kidney from a Portland, Ore.-area donor who died Sept. 11 and whose liver and two kidneys were to be shipped to Oklahoma for transplant. But because of the Federal Aviation Administration's flight ban and the closure of Portland International Airport, no commercial flights were available that night, said Christine Pashley, a spokeswoman for 373-bed Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland.
"We performed the transplant locally, and the patient is in fair condition," Pashley said. "Except for the flight ban, he would have been further down the list. This was not a scheduled surgery."
Through a hospital spokeswoman the Portland man said he feels bad for the Oklahoma patient who wasn't able to receive the kidney. But the recipient said he was extremely grateful for the gift he was given and is pleased that the organ wasn't wasted.
Monica Johnson Tomanka, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank, the organ procurement organization for Oregon and parts of Idaho and Washington, said the organs-two of which were later deemed unsuitable for transplant-couldn't make it to their intended destination.
"There is a very small bright side, if you could say that, to this tragedy," she said. "These procured organs will not be wasted, because people everywhere are waiting for transplants. They will be used even if they can't be shipped."
The next day, the FAA authorized humanitarian flights and allowed organ procurement organizations to use chartered planes to retrieve and transport donated organs. On Sept. 13, the skies were reopened to limited commercial air traffic, but many airports remained closed and booking flights was nearly impossible, organ procurement agencies said.
"Nonetheless, we're still operating as usual," said Tomanka, who pointed out that the Northwest organ agency recovered 380 organs from 97 donors in its service area last year.
That wasn't the case everywhere, however. News reports trickled in of donated organs spoiling in airports awaiting transport planes that never departed. A planned liver transplant for a northern California girl at 214-bed Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, Palo Alto, Calif., was postponed because a harvested liver could not be flown from New Mexico. That liver deteriorated and was no longer suitable for transplant, a Stanford spokeswoman said.
At the same time commercial flights were banned, resourceful procurement agencies found other means of transporting organs to their intended recipients.
Joel Newman, a spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based United Network for Organ Sharing, the federally designated network that operates the nation's organ transplant system, said at least 24 transplant organs had been placed on Sept. 11 and 12, nearly half of them transplanted locally.
An Iowa man who received a transplanted liver 11 years ago drove from that state to Virginia, arriving Sept. 13 with a heart valve and skin tissue, Newman said.
"There were some relatively unique arrangements made," Newman recounted. "One agency drove a kidney 500 miles by car, a nine-hour drive."
Newman said more than 78,000 patients are on waiting lists for organ transplants as of Sept. 7 and on average, at least 15 patients die daily awaiting those transplants.