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Surgeon in race to save patients' lives

By Shan Juan (China Daily) Updated: 2015-08-06 07:39

'Better system required' to transport donated organs to hospitals in time

Dr Chen Jingyu knows he will soon face another breathtaking race against death.

He just doesn't know exactly when.

When Chen, a Canadian-trained lung transplant surgeon and deputy director of Wuxi People's Hospital, prepared for a lung transplant with his team on July 29, it took nine hours for the donated organ to travel by air and rail from Beijing.

Usually, lungs have to be transplanted within 12 hours after removal from the donor to avoid damage. The surgery itself takes an average of five hours, and so the window available to transport the organ is five to six hours, according to Chen.

"It was a race against time and actually against death," Chen said.

After harvesting the lung donation in Beijing, Chen's team was told that their flight back to Wuxi had been canceled due to bad weather.

Meanwhile, the patient in Wuxi struggled to breathe, desperately awaiting a lifesaving transplant.

The team jumped on a flight to Shanghai and then took the high-speed train to Wuxi.

"That still took nine hours, which harmed the transplant quality a bit. Faced with patients who are struggling against death, we can't afford to waste a single organ donation," he said.

At Chen's hospital, the average patient waits for two to three years to land a matching lung donation.

"Many die waiting," he said.

Thanks to the national public organ donation system, donations have increased substantially, but long-distance transportation "still lacks a support system", he said.

Currently, air transportation fully relies on civil aviation, which is notorious for frequent delays. And there are no systematic and formal support measures at the airport like streamlined procedures, safety checks and early notice of changes to flight schedules.

An Air China worker surnamed Xing said the company recognizes the importance of organ transportation, but safety certificates for inspection and quarantine are required.

"We help streamline the procedures before boarding to save more time. But applications have to be filed beforehand by transplant centers with the official documents," he said.

In Western countries, donated organs are mainly carried by commercial air ambulance services that can be arranged quickly and airborne within one hour.

But such services, Chen said, are just beginning in China and not yet widely accessible and affordable to many.

In the first half of the year, there were more than 1,300 organ donations, but only about 60 lungs were transplanted, according to statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

"Many were wasted on the way," he said.

The problem is not limited to lung transportation.

China had 1,699 organ donors last year, and in theory, each donor can contribute eight organs and tissues: a heart, two lungs, one liver, two kidneys and two corneas. However, only 4,548 transplants were performed, commission statistics show.

To make the most use of organ donations, Chen suggested the country introduce a regulation in support of organ transportation to help coordinate civil aviation, railway and ground ambulances.

"It's a journey to life for the sufferers," he said.

However, Li Peng, a doctor with the General Hospital of Guangzhou Military Command of the PLA, disagreed.

"Geographic closeness should be considered when matching organ donations with waiting patients, which requires an allocation system," he said.

Statistics provided by Chen showed his hospital performed 104 of the 147 lung transplants in the country last year.

With more transparent and scientific allocation, "efficiency could be improved, costs lowered and limited organ donations optimized," he said.


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