OHSU reinstates heart transplant program

Oregon Health & Science University will resume its heart transplant services this month after nearly a year of inactivity, the university announced Aug. 26.

OHSU reported it received a unanimous OK from the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, to resume heart transplant care at the only program qualified to do so in Oregon. When OHSU’s transplant team resigned in 2018, dozens of patients on the program’s waitlist were left in limbo.

The university says it’s spent the past year “aggressively” recruiting advanced heart failure cardiologists for a new transplant team, and it’s been successful. Nalini Colaco, MD, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco; Luke Masha, MD, MPH, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Johannes Steiner, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Vermont Medical Center, are all confirmed hires for the new lineup.

“We are thrilled with our progress toward building the right team and receiving the appropriate approvals to provide heart transplants, in addition to mechanical circulatory support devices and many other options for advanced heart failure,” John Hunter, MD, executive VP and CEO of the OHSU health system, said in a statement.

Steiner will take the reins of the renewed program as OHSU’s primary UNOS physician, and the new recruits will join existing experts Howard Song, MD, PhD, chief of cardiothoracic surgery, and Fred Tibayan, MD, surgery director for heart failure and transplant, to round out the team. According to OHSU’s statement, Song and Tibayan have performed more heart transplants and implanted more ventricular assist devices than any other surgeons in the state.

A year of uncertainty

Transplant troubles at OHSU date back to August 2018, when The Oregonian first reported three advanced cardiologists left or announced plans to leave the university’s program. OHSU said it initially planned to suspend operations for “at least” two weeks, but within days, the fourth and final cardiologist resigned from the transplant team, effectively shuttering the program.

The move left 30 patients on OHSU’s transplant waitlist hanging in the balance, unsure of whether they’d receive care in Oregon or if they’d have to arrange for travel to nearby hubs in Seattle and San Francisco.

“It was not an easy decision to make as the only heart transplant center in Oregon,” Renee Edwards, CMO for OHSU Healthcare in Portland, told The Oregonian at the time. “But because our goal is to do the right thing, this pause is to ensure the care of our patients and look to the (recruitment) of additional providers.”

The cardiologists who pulled out of OHSU’s transplant program did so quietly, but a July 12 report in The Oregonian suggested it might have had something to do with the fact that the program lost twice the number of patients expected by analysts in 2017, resulting in an “alarming” number of deaths that year. Registry data also estimated people who received a heart transplant at OHSU Hospital within the past two years were at a 67% higher risk of death during their first year of recovery compared to patients treated at similar programs.

After almost a year of review, OHSU is once again Oregon’s sole provider of heart transplants, offering multi-organ failure services, a cardiac ICU, ECMO, a level 1 trauma center and an immunogenetics and transplantation lab.