Health, Science

Ice Chests or a Still Beating Heart?

human heart transplant
The window of opportunity for heart transplants is about 6 hours. But it could be much longer.
Image: Shutterstock

When you think of a cooler full of ice, what do you envision?  Maybe you think about a day out on a boat with a cooler full of coke or possibly beer, provided you’re not the driver.  Maybe you think of a picnic at a park with your drinks on ice.

Well, believe it or not, a cooler full of ice, and a time clock, are still the most important pieces of medical equipment in transporting live organs such as hearts.  When a person dies, time is of the essence in getting their organs into the next viable candidate.

However, it’s not a simple as just calling the person at the top of the transplant list.  Doctors need to ensure that the donor heart and the person receiving the transplant will be a good match.  That means the donor and recipient must be approximately the same age, body type and blood type.  Sometimes people’s bodies reject donor organs.  If that happens, they cannot reuse it.

According to William Chan, a heart transplant patient, it’s not an easy path.  He said, “When the phone call came that the heart was available, obviously we had this mad dash to get dressed because it’s 1:00 in the morning.  Obviously, you have to think about the donor, the donor’s family having a tragic event.”

The last thing on his mind was whether the heart would last until it could be transplanted.  The sad truth is that only four percent of donor hearts are viable for transplant.  Some are too old.  Some come from sick people.  Some are diseased.  Of those that are viable, not all make it to a recipient in time.

The window of time is approximately six hours.  After that, the chances of successful transplant fall to almost zero.  It’s scary that this is the reality we are living in in the year 2013.  You would think we would have come up with something more advanced than an ice chest and a stopwatch.

Actually, there is a company that has come up with something more advanced.  Transmedics has developed a system of better preserving hearts for transport and transplant.  Their device keeps the heart warm, fed with nutrients and actually pumping.  Their amazing device allows double the six hour window for a successful transplant.

That means that hearts collected in Hawaii, for example, could actually make it to a recipient on the mainland.  Previously, that was impossible since it took more than six hours for the heart to get there.  Hopefully many more people will have successful transplants due to this exciting new technology.

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