InsideSurgery was saddened to learn of the June 4, 2007 airplane accident that has apparently cost the lives of four members of a transplant team from the University of Michigan and two pilots. Reported lost are surgeons Dr. Martinus “Martin” Spoor and Dr. David Ashburn. Also missing and presumed dead are two transplant coordinators Richard Chenault and Richard Lapanese and pilots Dennis Hoyes and Bill Serra.
The Cessna Citation carrying the six men went down in Lake Michigan while flying from General Mitchell International airport outside of Milwaukee to Willow Run airport outside of Detroit. Reportedly, flying conditions were less than ideal with rain and wind in the area.
One of the editors of InsideSurgery.com is a former transplant surgeon who took dozens of flights on small, fixed wing aircraft to recover organs. Even in the best weather, during the day, and on short flights it was a harrowing experience. The flight to send a team to recover organs and then have them return to the recipient is part of a highly choreographed schedule where the shortest amount of elapsed time between recovery of an organ and placing it in the donor is a priority.
Heart and lung transplant teams such as this one from the University of Michigan almost always fly to recover organs, either on helicopters or in fixed wing aircraft. Even with modern day preservation solutions such as those developed at the University of Wisconsion (aka UW solution), a recovered heart must be placed in a recipient optimally within 4-6 hours.
Because of this small window of time, the transplant recovery teams usually arrive and leave separately at the donor hospital. The “belly team” that will recover the intraabdominal organs (typically liver and kidney) starts the dissection and places the preservation lines. When the “chest team” is ready the procurement begins and the heart is removed. The chest team then sometimes actually runs with their organs to a waiting ambulance with lights and sirens activated that will take them back to their hospital if nearby or to the airport .
The belly team then procures their organs and closes the patient. The process is not quite so rushed as the preservation time for livers is 8-12 hours and for kidneys is 24 hours. During the procurement process there are no breaks scheduled into the system – no breaks to rest or eat and certainly no breaks for bad weather.
Although it is not clear why the plane carrying the pediatric cardiac surgeons went down, what is obvious is that once the organs were recovered, there simply would not be time for a drive around the tip of Lake Michigan and then across the state of Michigan to Ann Arbor to get an organ back to the waiting recipient (one can guess from the training of the surgeons on the recovery perhaps a child waiting for a heart transplant??). So, if there was any chance to get a still usable organ from Milwaukee to Ann Arbor, the team would have to fly.
Tragically, that flight never made it back to Michigan. The six men on that plane died trying to give the gift of life.
Copyright 2007 InsideSurgery.com