updated 6/6/2007 5:31:46 PM ET 2007-06-06T21:31:46

A critically ill patient could become the seventh fatality of a plane crash that killed six members of an organ transplant team en route to save his life.

The patient, who was on the operating table when the plane went down in Lake Michigan on Monday, is back on the waiting list for another organ.

Divers resumed their search Wednesday in water as much as 50 feet deep, mapping the wreckage and bringing up debris for examination by National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The donor organ, which was packed in ice in a cooler, has not been found.

The crash killed two of the University of Michigan Health System’s three full-time transplant donation specialists, but university officials said the Ann Arbor hospital’s transplant work will not be suspended.

“If there was an organ that became available and matched one of our patients, we would have absolutely moved forward with that surgery,” hospital spokeswoman Krista Hopson said Wednesday.

An organization that works closely with the transplant unit, however, said the hospital had sought to avoid some surgeries until later in the week.

“They informed us they would prefer not to do any lung transplants until (Thursday), with the exception of the candidate who did not get a lung transplant on Monday,” said Tom Beyersdorf, Gift of Life of Michigan’s executive director.

Hospital officials declined to identify the patient who had been awaiting the organ lost in the crash, citing medical privacy rules. They also would not confirm that he was awaiting a lung transplant, but one of the doctors killed was a cardiac surgeon, suggesting the patient was about to get a new heart or lungs.

The Cessna 550 Citation crashed about 5 p.m., shortly after takeoff from Milwaukee, where the team had obtained the donor organ. National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Brannen said the pilot had signaled an emergency and was making a left turn and heading back to the Milwaukee airport when the plane went down in 57-degree water.

The crash was under investigation.

Also killed were both pilots and two technicians whose job was to prepare the organ for transplant.

Organs can last only hours
Hearts can last outside the body for only four to six hours and lungs eight hours, said Dr. Tony D’Alessandro, executive director of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic Organ Procurement Organization.

Hospital officials would not disclose how far along the surgery was, but said that typically they do not remove a transplant recipient’s old organ until they have a replacement ready.

Gift of Life of Michigan received 11 organ donation referrals in a 12-hour period Tuesday night following news reports about the downed plane and impact on the organ transplant recipient who is back on a waiting list, Beyersdorf said.

“Typically the referrals are of someone who (may die) in the next few hours or days,” Beyersdorf said. “Most are not medically suitable. We’re in the process of evaluating those 11. Typically, if we have 11 there are usually two or three potential donors.”

A recent NTSB study found that accidents involving emergency medical services flights — those carrying patients or organs for transplant — have been increasing. Between January 2002 and January 2005 there were 55 such accidents and 54 deaths.

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