More than six weeks after Oregon Health & Science University shut down the state’s only heart transplant program, North Albany resident Dianna Howell is still waiting to be accepted into a similar program elsewhere — and the clock is ticking.
Howell was one of 20 transplant candidates on a waiting list for a new heart through OHSU who had to scramble to make other arrangements when the Portland hospital closed its transplant program on Aug. 24, after all four of the program’s cardiologists decided to quit.
Howell has made multiple trips to Seattle to meet with doctors in the University of Washington health system, which is now the nearest heart transplant program to her. A number of former OHSU patients have reportedly been enrolled in that program, but so far Howell is not one of them.
“We’re still not listed in Seattle,” Howell said. “They just seem to be overwhelmed.”
While the UW physicians have been encouraging, Howell said she can no longer afford to wait for admission to that program. Based on her diagnosis of end-stage heart failure when she was admitted to the OHSU program in July of last year, she may have only another two months to live without a new heart.
To be eligible for a donor heart, candidates must be registered with an accredited transplant program. They must also be within three hours by Life Flight from the program’s transplant center when a suitable heart becomes available.
Under Howell’s insurance plan, the only two programs that fit those criteria are the ones at UW in Seattle and the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. While still hoping to be accepted by UW, Howell and her husband, Jeff, plan to check out the Arizona program next.
“We’re going to fly down to the Mayo in another week and try there,” she said.
“Seattle is just so full. It’s taking a long time, and I don’t have a lot of time.”
While OHSU has stopped doing heart transplants since the four cardiology specialists left, Howell said the remaining staff have been very supportive, calling frequently to check up on her.
In addition, she said, the hospital is helping to pay for her travel to Seattle and Washington and has offered to help secure low-cost housing for its former patients during the three-month recovery period when they’ll need to live near the transplanting hospital.
“That’s taken some of the stress off,” she said.
“They’ve really stepped up, and I think all the media coverage has played a big part in that.”
Despite significant media attention, neither OHSU nor any of its departed cardiologists have publicly stated what led to the physician exodus that shut down the heart transplant program, which was founded in 1985. The Portland hospital has not released a timeline for restarting the program but has announced plans for an independent peer review to shed light on what went wrong and how the program could be improved.
“OHSU remains fully committed to reactivating the state’s only heart transplant program for patients in Oregon and beyond,” spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley said in an email to the newspaper.
She added that “we are aggressively recruiting the specialists required to provide the full continuum of care.”