US flight turned back after human heart left on board | News | DW | 14.12.2018
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US flight turned back after human heart left on board

A forgotten human heart caused a US airliner to turn back mid-flight when staff realized it had been left on board. The error wasted precious time — a human heart for transplant can only be stored for a matter of hours.

A Southwest Airlines flight traveling from Seattle to Dallas had to turn around mid-flight last weekend after it was discovered that a human heart had been left on the plane, officials said Thursday.

The airliner was flying over eastern Idaho — around 600 miles (950 kilometers) into the journey — when staff discovered the "life-critical cargo shipment," which had been transported from California and was meant to be delivered to a Seattle hospital.

Read more: Could pigs' hearts soon beat in human bodies?

"Once we realized the error we immediately worked to return to Seattle," airline spokesman Dan Landson told French news agency AFP.

The heart was being shipped by transplant network Sierra Donor Services, which confirmed late on Thursday it was not intended for a patient. 

Wasted time

The Seattle Times newspaper reported that Flight 3606's captain told passengers the cargo causing the plane to turn back was a human heart.

The error is thought to have cost up to four hours, roughly three of them in the air, AFP reported. The length of time a human heart can be stored before transplantation is short, typically between four and six hours according to medical experts.

Read more: Why organ transplant is so difficult to carry out in Japan

Andrew Gottschalk, a doctor with no connection to the incident, told the Seattle Times that his fellow passengers were shocked as those with internet connections discovered the small window of viability for a heart transplant.

Gottschalk described the incident as a "horrific story of gross negligence."

Passengers on the plane did not know the entire heart was not destined to be transplanted.

Family 'relieved' heart valves were received

In a statement posted to their Facebook page, Sierra Donor Services confirmed that despite the delay it had still been able to recover the valves from the heart to use in future surgeries. 

"Out of respect for the family of this donor, we reached out to them to keep them apprised of this development," said the company's Executive Direction Monica Johnson. "They are relieved their loved one's heart valves were received and will be able to help others." 

The statement added a family spokesperson said they were "thankful that he will be able to help others." 

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law/msh (AFP, AP)

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