Human heart left aboard jet forces mid-air turnaround
Seattle: The announcement that came over the speakers on Southwest Flight 3606 from Seattle to Dallas on Sunday had nothing to do with turbulence. It was not about connecting flights, troubling weather or delays.
A Southwest Airlines jet.Credit:AP
This one was highly unusual: A human heart had been left behind on the airplane, the announcement said, and was presumably needed by someone right away.
With that, the airplane turned around in midair and headed back to Seattle where it had started.
As the plane turned around, flying about 90 minutes in the direction it had just left, confusion spread among the 140 passengers.
Some speculated on where the heart might be needed for a transplant operation. Some searched the internet for information. Would a heart intended for transplant really be carried on a commercial flight?
How long could it be viable? Where exactly was the heart anyway?
"People in general were happy to help for some good reason," said Dr Andrew Gottschalk, who was a passenger on the flight and is an orthopedic sports physician from New Orleans.
"But it wasn't adding up. Heart transplants aren't something you throw in a Walmart cooler and put on a plane."
An emailed statement from Southwest Airlines provided few answers.
"We learned of a life-critical cargo shipment onboard the aircraft that was intended to stay in Seattle for delivery to a local hospital," the airline said.
A heart which he had just previously removed from a dead person at the pathology clinic in Germany.Credit:DPA
"Therefore, we made the decision to return to Seattle to ensure the shipment was delivered to its destination within the window of time allotted by our cargo customer."
As it turns out, the heart had been carried in a cargo area on an earlier flight from Sacramento to Seattle, where a courier company was supposed to have picked it up. For unknown reasons, the heart was mistakenly left on the plane as it headed to Dallas.
It was never intended for a transplant, but its valves and tissues were meant for use in future surgeries, according to Deanna Santana, spokeswoman for Sierra Donor Services, a Sacramento-based organ and tissue recovery agency.
The heart needed to reach the offices of LifeNet Health, in a suburb of Seattle, within a short time — 48 hours after the donor's death — to be usable.
"Thanks to the pilots for turning around," said Doug Wilson, spokesman for LifeNet.
Wilson said that such heart valves and tissues can be stored for later use, and that it was uncertain when or where a final surgery or surgeries might occur. It could be Seattle, he said, or maybe even Texas.
With the specially packed heart unloaded from the plane in Seattle on Sunday afternoon, things grew more complicated for the passengers who were still waiting to get to Dallas.
The airplane was taken out of service because of an unrelated mechanical problem, Southwest officials said.
"We sincerely regret the inconvenience to the customers impacted by the delay, and we are following up with them with a gesture of good will to apologise for the disruption to their travel," the airline said in a statement. Flight 3606 arrived in Dallas five hours late.
The New York Times
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