St. Luke’s Heart Transplant Program Reopens Following Suspension
On June 1st, the Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, Texas, announced it was temporarily suspending its heart transplant program due to a voluntary two-week internal review. The announcement left many patients waiting to hear about next steps, worrying that the suspension may last much longer. Some of the patients awaiting surgery were never even contacted by the hospital directly.
The patients were also told only indirectly that the voluntary review was scheduled after three of nine patients receiving transplant surgery this year died. “I sort of feel like we’ve been left in the dark,” Nelly, the wife of scheduled recipient, David Reed, said.
Reed is among 89 people who is currently waiting for a heart transplant at St. Luke’s. If the program didn’t reopen as expected, the delay would have caused additional regulatory requirements to be put into place that could force it to remain suspended for weeks or months longer.
A spokesperson said the hospital directly contacted the most critically ill patients on its waiting list when it made its decision “and others as available” to make them aware of the suspension. She confirmed the hospital performed an internal review to determine “next steps for the program at the end of the 14-day period.”
An investigation performed last month revealed that multiple heart transplant recipients have suffered unusual complications since 2016. Two had vital veins stitched closed during surgery, according to multiple sources. Another patient’s heart transplant failed after operating room equipment malfunctioned during a key point in the surgery. The problems led a few St. Luke’s cardiologists to begin referring some of their most critical patients to other hospitals, and eventually, to the hospital’s decision to conduct the review.
Given the scope of the problems, some experts questioned whether St. Luke’s can make all the necessary changes in just two weeks. “I seriously doubt, being in transplantation the last 25 years, they are going to be able to do it in 14 days,” said Alexander Aussi, a San Antonio-based consultant who specializes in helping transplant programs abide by regulatory requirements.
“That’s why I think they are going to extend that inactivation period,” Aussi added during the suspension. “Because what they have is symptomatic of a much larger problem that is multifactorial and systemic in nature. It’s not one thing.”
As the investigation was in progress, St. Luke’s CEO Gay Nord sent a note to all staff members reminding them not to release “ANY information whatsoever to members of the news media regarding patient care or business operations” without permission from the hospital’s marketing staff, lest they run afoul of patient privacy laws and risk losing their jobs. A staff member forwarded the memo to the media.
A hospital spokesperson said the note from its CEO came in response to “complaints we received from patients and concerns that personal information was being disclosed inappropriately.”
As of Friday, the hospital has reopened, leaving many to question if it is safe for more surgeries to take place within its walls. However, in a written statement, it indicated the review “did not identify systemic issues related to the quality of the program.” Nevertheless, the hospital had reorganized its transplant surgery team, refined the criteria for which patients it would accept for heart transplants, and made several other improvements to the program.