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Flight rules may disrupt organ transplants

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The new business and security realities at U.S. airports will create challenges for organ recovery groups, which often rely on planes to ferry human organs to distant hospitals.

Reduced flight schedules could force recovery groups to use costlier charter flights, rather than commercial airlines, and beefed-up security raises the possibility that organs meant to be shipped to another city instead might be used closer to where they are donated.

There aren't precise numbers about how many organs end up being shipped on airplanes each year. The United Network for Organ Sharing says that in 1999 there were more than 6,000 instances of organs being sent outside a local donation area. While not universally true, many of those organs would have been shipped by plane.

The Center for Organ Recovery and Education, which coordinates transplants in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and part of New York state, has imported 185 organs for transplant this year and almost all have arrived by plane.

Brian Broznick, the executive director at the center, said he doubts increased security will result in problems like those experienced last week, in which some organs were given to local patients rather than sicker patients elsewhere. And the increased security won't lead to the worst problems seen last week, in which some organs were not taken from donors because they couldn't be flown to recipients.

But Pam Silvestri, spokeswoman for the Southwest Transplant Alliance, said she could imagine cases in which organs might be diverted.

Silvestri recalled one case some time ago in which a liver recovered in Galveston, Texas, was flown on a private plane to Dallas, where it was transferred to an American Airlines flight bound for the East Coast. The flight was the last of the night and the airline not only delayed it for 20 minutes, but allowed the organ recovery group to drive the liver out onto the airport tarmac, all to ensure the speediest delivery.

That sort of scenario seems unlikely in the current environment, Silvestri said.

Ann Paschke, spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, which coordinates transplants nationally, agreed that new regulations might prevent organs from making a few last-minute flights because all organ packages must now pass through X-ray machines, just like all other baggage. But, in general, the network doesn't anticipate problems. The organ network found that commercial airlines were accepting organ packages with very few delays yesterday.

Broznick expects the local procurement group will continue to send organs on commercial airlines, although the center's staff might have to spend more time baby-sitting organs at airports while they go through security checks. The real unknown, he said, is the extent to which commercial carriers will cut flights from the schedules. With fewer flights, organ recovery groups could be forced to hire charter flights, and demand for those planes has already been on the rise, Broznick said.

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