He Got a New Heart and Immediately Started Dying

ProPublica, Houston Chronicle look at St. Luke's in Houston
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 22, 2018 2:34 PM CDT
He Got a New Heart, Was Dead 11 Weeks Later
On Jan. 1, James "Lee" Lewis headed to Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. He'd never leave it.   (Getty Images)

Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center is one of America's most storied hospitals when it comes to heart transplants. Or was. Though some of the first heart transplants took place at the Houston hospital, things have disintegrated to the point that it now "has had some of the worst heart transplant outcomes in the country." So write Mike Hixenbaugh and Charles Ornstein in a story co-published by the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica. Their joint investigation found an elevated death and complication count for heart transplant patients there, whose one-year survival rate "now ranks near the bottom nationally" at 85% for those who got a new heart between mid-2014 and 2016; the national rate was 91.4%. Hixenbaugh and Ornstein add a face to those stats via the story of James "Lee" Lewis.

Word came on Jan. 1, 2018, that St. Luke's had a heart for Lewis—news that brought hope the 52-year-old would be able to walk his daughter down the aisle in June. But by March 23, he was dead, having never left the hospital. What happened in between is a series of missteps, starting with the Jan. 2 transplant. Two months after the transplant his family learned what went wrong that day: The defibrillator Dr. Masahiro Ono tried to use to "jolt the new heart into rhythm" wasn't working; he said he had to pump it by hand for 10 minutes until a working one was found. The donor heart was damaged and weakened as a result and wouldn't strengthen; it was eventually swapped for an artificial heart. Then came strokes, infection in Lewis' bloodstream, and what the family says was another equipment mishap that left him brain-dead. Read the full story here. (More Longform stories.)

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