Health & Medicine

How did a donated human heart get left on a Southwest flight from Sacramento?

A Southwest Airlines jet headed from Seattle to Dallas made a dramatic turnaround in midair Sunday evening when airline officials realized they had accidentally left an unusual bit of cargo in the hold:

A human heart.

Southwest Airlines officials said the pilot turned the plane around over Idaho to bring a medically donated human heart back to a Seattle-area organ processing facility, where its valves were supposed to be prepared for an upcoming surgery.

The heart, which was wrapped in a cooling package, had been shipped from Sacramento after being donated from a Northern California hospital.

Deanna Santana of Sierra Donor Services in West Sacramento told The Sacramento Bee the organ ultimately was delivered safely to its destination.

“It was received unharmed by LifeNet Health to prepare the valves for future transplant,” Santana said. “There was no intended recipient as heart valves are not immediately ready for transplant but need to be prepared by an accredited tissue processor.”

Typically a heart used for full transplant needs to be processed in four to six hours, she said. The valves, though, have a two-day time frame for usage after removal, she said.

Southwest officials said on Thursday they are looking into why the heart didn’t get unloaded the first time around in Seattle.

“We learned of a life-critical cargo shipment on board the aircraft that was intended to stay in Seattle for delivery to a local hospital,” spokesman Dan Landson said in an email to The Bee. “Therefore, we made the decision to return to Seattle to ensure the shipment was delivered to its destination within the window of time allotted by our cargo customer. “

Monica Johnson, executive director of Sierra Donor Services, said her company reached out to the donor’s family to let them know what happened. “They are relieved their loved one’s heart valves were received and will be able to help others.”

Heart valves from donors can be used to aid children born with heart defects who need reconstructive surgery, donor services officials said.

One passenger on the plane, Dr. Andrew Gottschalk, told the Seattle Times the pilot shocked passengers by announcing that they were turning around because a medically donated human heart had been left aboard. He said he and others worried about how long the heart could last outside a body, but also were happy that the detour was being undertaken to possibly save someone’s life.

Gottschalk, who does medical practice in New Orleans, told the Times he believes the incident is a “horrific story of gross negligence ... The heart in question traveled from California, to Washington, to the other side of Idaho, and back to Washington.”

The aircraft also had a mechanical issue, forcing passengers to deplane in Seattle for a five-hour delay.

“We sincerely regret the inconvenience to the customers impacted by the delay, and we are following up with them with a gesture of goodwill to apologize for the disruption to their travel,” Landson of Southwest wrote. “Nothing is more important to us than the Safety of our customers and the safe delivery of the precious cargo we transport every day.”