Organs are moved by road when commercial flights are unavailable, which these days is often. In several urgent cases, charter planes have flown organ retrieval teams in and out of destinations at a moment’s notice.
Professor Toby Coates, president of the Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand, noted the WA government paid close to $40,000 for a charter to retrieve two kidneys from South Australia.
In another case, the Royal Flying Doctors and CareFlight moved a woman from Kintore, a nine-hour drive west of Alice Springs, to receive her new kidney in Adelaide.
Despite the challenges and early fears organs would be thrown out, specialists believe the system has only been “modestly” affected during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’s extraordinary. It’s taken a lot of effort by a lot of people,” says Professor Steve Chadban, a Sydney-based transplant physician.
“Many of these border closures are political in nature and we’re not political beasts, we’re just medical, so we just try and talk common sense wherever we can and usually people will listen to that.”
The work to keep organs moving in the age of COVID-19 began in March with the formation of the National Transplantation and Donation Rapid Response Taskforce, a 20-strong panel of specialists who meet most weeks via Zoom to share information and form strategies.
It has engaged with governments to keep borders as fluid as possible. It has also worked with hospital administrations across Australia to ensure operating theatres and beds have been available for patients.
Organisations such as Donate Life have helped identify organs and untangle bureaucracies so as to push through time-critical cases.
Professor Chadban said heart transplants were up 26 per cent in the year ending July, while pancreas transplants increased by 29 per cent. Tragically, because these organs come mostly from healthy donors, professionals hypothesise there has been a national increase in suicides. That is not the case in Victoria; State Coroner John Cain on Thursday released fresh data showing there were two fewer suicides in Victoria compared with the same time last year.
Kidney transplants were down about 30 per cent in the same period. Professor Chadban said this was still a remarkable result given the national program was put on hold in the first weeks of the pandemic when intensive care units were cleared for a then-unknowable influx of pandemic cases.
Physicians were also wary of performing procedures when data was still so thin about effects of COVID-19 on transplant patients.
There were also fewer kidneys available, Professor Chadban said, for reasons difficult to explain.
For example, incidences of strokes, a common cause of death for kidney donors, have been down around the world in the past six months for reasons unknown. It is also believed that a pause on non-urgent brain and heart surgeries – operations that inevitably result in a small percentage of deaths – reduced the kidney pool.
Yvonne’s Wilson’s kidney, her second since being diagnosed with kidney failure almost 30 years ago, arrived on a flight from Perth. While she is still weak, husband Leigh said the “kidney function is probably better than yours and mine”.
Her operation followed two years of in-home dialysis, which saved the couple days of travel to hospital each week. The couple says this allowed Yvonne to get physically and mentally strong enough to rejoin the transplant waiting list.
“Without that mindset, she wouldn’t have been alive to have this kidney,” Leigh said.
Zach is a reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org