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Houston hospital suspends renown heart transplant program following recent deaths

Two patients died earlier this year approximately three months after receiving a heart transplant at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center.
Image: Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center
Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center in Houston on June 1, 2018. Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle via AP

A Houston hospital has temporarily suspended all procedures in its renown heart transplant program following the recent deaths of two people.

Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center announced that it would suspend its heart transplant program for 14 days as administrators assess what's gone awry with operations.

The decision, first reported by the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica, followed a series of reports by the news outlets, which revealed the departure of several top physicians and an unusually high number of patient deaths in recent years.

The Chronicle and ProPublica reported that the hospital has performed an outsized number of transplants over the past few years resulting in deaths and the departures of several top physicians. One of the program's top two surgeons left earlier this week for another job, according to the Chronicle.

The program's suspension, which was done voluntarily by the hospital, began on Friday.

“We greatly respect and value the trust patients and their families have placed in us over the years, and believe this temporary pause will serve their best interests,” Doug Lawson, CEO of Catholic Health Initiatives Texas Division, which operates Baylor, said in a statement.

Lawson said that an extensive review is already conducted when a transplant fails, but because of recent outcomes, it was decided that an in-depth review was required "before we move forward with the program."

The two most recent deaths happened within three months of a transplant, according to the Chronicle.

James "Lee" Lewis, 52, died on March 23, after equipment in the operating room "malfunctioned during a key stage of his transplant surgery," the Chronicle reported. Robert Barron, 67, who also had a heart transplant, died on May 5. The paper reported a third person dying in recent weeks.

In 2015, the hospital reported that out of 14 patients who received a heart transplant in the first six months of the year, five died less than a year later, according to the Chronicle and ProPublica. That number was higher than expected, according to the report. However, the hospital said its one-year survival rates were up to 94 percent in 2016 and 2017 — a period of time in which 34 people received transplants — and cited a period of transition as the cause of the lowered rate of survival in 2015.

Although the hospital has paused its transplant program, it said other heart-failure procedures — such as heart-pump implants — will continue. It also said other transplant programs would not be affected.

It also said it will continue to recruit surgical and clinical experts to its heart transplant program during the suspension.