St. Luke’s in Houston to suspend heart transplants after recent deaths


Updated 4:23 pm, Friday, June 1, 2018


Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center on Friday temporarily suspended its renowned heart transplant program following two deaths in recent weeks, saying it needs to reassess what went wrong and determine the path forward.

The decision to put the program on a 14-day inactive status — meaning it will turn away all donor hearts during that time — came two weeks after the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica reported that in recent years the program has performed an outsized number of transplants resulting in deaths and lost several top physicians. One of the program’s two primary surgeons left for another job this week.

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“We greatly respect and value the trust patients and their families have placed in us over the years, and believe this temporary pause will serve their best interests,” Doug Lawson, CEO of Catholic Health Initiatives Texas Division, which operates St. Luke’s, said in a written statement Friday afternoon. “Although extensive reviews are conducted on each unsuccessful transplant, the recent patient outcomes deserve an in-depth review before we move forward with the program. Our prayers are with the families, as well as all those on the waiting list.”

For weeks, officials at St. Luke’s and its affiliated Baylor College of Medicine have defended the program, saying they had made improvements after a string of patient deaths in 2015. Officials said the program’s one-year survival rate after heart transplants had reached 94 percent in 2016 and 2017.

But in recent months, more patients have died. James “Lee” Lewis, a 52-year-old pipefitter from Bay City, died on March 23, nearly three months after operating room equipment malfunctioned during a key stage of his transplant surgery. Another patient, a 67-year-old bankruptcy lawyer named Robert Barron, died on May 5, three months after his transplant. A third patient died in recent weeks, prompting the hospital’s decision Friday.

WORST NIGHTMARE: A heart transplant, a medical mishap and a drawn-out death

“I’m glad they are doing something,” said Jennifer Lewis, who chronicled her husband’s transplant and drawn-out death on Facebook and shared it with reporters for a story published last week. “That was my hope in speaking out and telling Lee’s story.”

After the news organizations’ investigation was published, St. Luke’s launched a website, HeartTransplantFacts.org, to counter the findings of ProPublica and the Chronicle. The site on Friday was replaced with a notice about the program’s inactive status.

It appears the program had slowed down, even before Friday’s announcement. In the first five months of this year, it performed only nine transplants, well below the pace it kept in the past two years, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing.

TELL US YOUR STORY: Are you an employee, patient or a family member of a patient at the Texas Medical Center? We want to hear from you

The decision to put the program on hold punctuates a dramatic fall for one of the nation’s most respected heart transplant programs. It was at St. Luke’s that famed surgeon Denton Cooley performed some of the world’s first heart transplants back in the 1960s, and where his protégé, Dr. O.H. “Bud” Frazier, has pursued a lifelong quest to develop a complete mechanical replacement for the human heart.

In 2016, some St. Luke’s cardiologists grew so troubled by the program’s direction that they began referring some of their patients to other hospitals for transplants.

Even as it struggled in recent years, the hospital continued to market itself as a standout, boasting above-average survival rates and high transplant volume. Its website calls it “one of the most experienced, successful programs in the world.”

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In January, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited the heart transplant program for its significantly worse-than-expected outcomes and threatened to cut off Medicare funds if the problems were not fixed, according to a letter obtained by ProPublica and the Chronicle. The program has since submitted a plan of correction and avoided the loss of federal funds.

During the heart transplant suspension, officials said they will continue recruiting surgeons “to strengthen the program.” A newly created special committee of the hospital’s board of directors also will conduct a comprehensive review, the hospital’s statement said. The move will not affect other heart-failure procedures, such as heart-pump implants, or any other transplant programs across the hospital.

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This story is the result of a collaboration between the Chronicle and ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom based in New York. Mike Hixenbaugh is an investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle. Charles Ornstein is a senior editor at ProPublica.

HEART FAILURE: St. Luke’s, the Houston transplant center made famous by Denton Cooley, has fallen far and fast, dropping to levels far short of its reputation. In recent years, the famed program has performed an outsized number of transplants resulting in deaths or unusual complications. Read our full investigation on our subscriber website, HoustonChronicle.com



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