Sandy fails to thwart Philadelphia-area organ transplants

Heart-transplant recipient Jack Vaughn before surgery, with his wife, Nancy.
Heart-transplant recipient Jack Vaughn before surgery, with his wife, Nancy.
Posted: November 10, 2012

Francis Barnes got the call on his cellphone - power was already out - at 10:16 p.m., with Hurricane Sandy at its peak. His 16-month wait for a new liver was over. All he had to do was get to the hospital in West Philadelphia from his home on a gravel cul-de-sac in rural Upper Bucks County.

"I said, sure," he said. "My adrenaline was pumping."

Barnes soon got stopped by a tree too big to move, and turned around. Another tree; he backed up. A third, then a fourth. He dialed transplant coordinator Nicole Platt.

"He said, 'There are five ways out of my neighborhood,' " she said. " 'I'm going to try the fifth way and I'll call you back.' The next call I got from him" - he had found a sixth route - "was 'Yeah, yeah, I got to 611.' "

A few hours earlier, Platt had helped arrange a rescue company transport for a heart-transplant patient in Easton, Pa., to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Four days later, with transport still shaky at the Jersey Shore, a coordinator at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center managed to get a patient from Pleasantville to Camden for a kidney.

Extra effort? Yes.

Unusual? Not really.

Operating-room staffs spend the night in case they are needed. Physicians make it in however they can. Most patients find a way regardless of the weather; it may be their best chance to live.

"As far as I can recall, we have never had a cancellation of a donation or a transplant," said Howard M. Nathan, chief executive of the Gift of Life Donor Program, which has coordinated more than 33,000 organ transplants in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware since 1974.

Between 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, as Sandy approached, and 6 a.m. that Wednesday, the group handled five transplants of major organs and 13 tissue donors (bone, skin, and other tissue to help more than 400 recipients); both were typical for the time period.

There can be disruptions - and, given the shortage of organs, one person's loss may be another's gain.

Jack Vaughn, 65, has severe congestive heart failure, the result of a 30-year battle with genetic ailments, but drugs were keeping him alive - and below the highest priorities for transplants. When a matched heart became available as Sandy's winds picked up, another patient feared leaving his family alone. And airport closures meant that the heart could not be flown out of the region to sicker patients across the country, said Nicole Hornsby, a transplant coordinator at HUP.

She contacted Vaughn in Easton and started trying to find transportation to Philadelphia. Volunteers at Suburban Rescue EMS in Palmer Township agreed, which was handy, since the Northeast Extension was open only to emergency vehicles.

"I have never had a miracle before in my life," said Vaughn.

The storm was long gone when a kidney became available for Linda Loftin, 49, whose high blood pressure led to kidney failure and dialysis three years ago. But she was hesitant: The buses from nearby Atlantic City still were not running last Friday, she had an ill grandson to care for, and she could not afford a taxi. Several previous trips to Camden had not produced a match.

It took conversations with transplant coordinator Carol Francesco and surgeon Ely M. Sebastian to convince her, and the efforts of a social worker and others at Lourdes to find a connection at the Pleasantville Volunteer Fire Department, which drove Loftin - handing her off to a local ambulance after getting a flat tire in Camden.

The transplant was a success; she went home on Election Day.

Francis Barnes had energy and a can-do attitude despite his cancerous liver and chronic Hepatitis C. So when HUP called at the height of the storm, the 63-year-old former Pennsylvania education secretary turned down the offer of an ambulance and jumped in his Porsche Panamera, admittedly not the best vehicle for crawling over debris in Tinicum Township in the dark.

His gateway to Philadelphia, Route 611, was less than two miles away as the crow flies, but even birds were grounded. Perhaps a mile up Bunker Hill Road was a fallen branch. "It was fairly large but I was able to drag it off the road," said Barnes, who lifts weights.

He turned left on Beaver Run Road but was blocked by a huge tree. He turned around and tried Quarry Road, driving only a few hundred yards before backing out. Heading the other way on Beaver Run, "I made it pretty far, stopping now and then," he said. "And lo and behold, a big tree was down."

Back a ways to Clay Ridge, another trunk. Up Byers, ditto. He backtracked onto Rock Ridge Road: "I was doing pretty good but there was a tree hanging on a wire, literally hanging," Barnes said. He walked up to see whether the other side looked clear. It did. He eased the car underneath, with branches touching the roof. And on to 611.

"We were both very excited when he made it to 611," said Platt, who described the evening as merely "unusual." Platt coordinates nighttime transplants - heart, liver, lung, kidney - for HUP, as well as some for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, from her Phoenixville home.

Some nights, with multiple organs from one donor, she handles up to six transplants. She had only two - Barnes' liver and Vaughn's heart, which she took over from her colleague Hornsby - during Sandy, and everything worked.

Indeed, while some emergency rooms in the region, especially at the Shore, drew crowds in the days after the storm - partly because of power outages that closed private doctor practices and left patients without power to run home medical equipment - most were underutilized and fully staffed during Sandy.

Three Thomas Jefferson University Hospital emergency physicians were out of state and had their flights canceled. Two were in Chicago. "They drove here," said Paris Lovett, the emergency department's medical director.

After his back-roads odyssey, Barnes arrived at HUP around 1 a.m. He was prepped for surgery at 4 a.m., the donor liver was retrieved, and the eight-hour operation began around 8:30.

He went home on Sunday.

His wife had been staying with their daughter in Burlington when the liver came through, forcing him drive in alone.

This time, she took the wheel.


Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.

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