Heart Successfully Traveled Record 2,506 Nautical Miles From Alaska to Boston for Transplant

The trip took 7 1/2 hours and is considered a promising development for organ donations

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A team of healthcare workers successfully transported a heart in a record-breaking trip from Alaska to Massachusetts in late April.

Dr. Joseph Rubelowsky, a cardiothoracic surgeon, led the operation, taking off from his hometown of Cleveland for Juneau, Alaska. From there, he collected the organ and quickly headed back east, travelling nautical 2,506 miles before arriving at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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This cross country trip took 7 1/2 hours, well over the recommended four to six-hour period where the heart is between bodies, and set a record for the farthest a heart has ever travelled, according to Paragonix Technologies, a group at the center of this record-breaking trek.

For years, transplate specialists have used everyday coolers to transport hearts across state lines in a rush to get them to a patient in time. While that's been successful on many occassions, it can be hard to manipulate the temperature and protect the heart from tissue damage due to below-freezing temperatures.

A cooling system called SherpaPak by Paragonix Technologies is offering promising alternative. First approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013, experts say it's gained popularity over the last decade after research that continues to prove it can extend the essential time period between transplants and provide a more stable environment for the organ.

Unlike an everyday cooler, the SherpaPak keeps the heart between 4 and 8 degrees Celcius, the optimal window to protect the heart, according to Rubelowsky.

The technology also allows multiple people -- including Rubelowsky and health care providers on the ground in Alaska and Boston -- to monitor the temperature from their phones.

Landing after midnight in Boston, Rubelowsky was greeted by an ambulance which took over the final leg of the trip -- delivering it to Massachusetts General Hospital. With his part of the trip complete, he returned to Cleveland and got word that "the heart did very well," according to a text from a Boston surgeon.

The patient was discharged from the hospital several weeks later.

This trip gives healthcare providers and policy experts hope that they can improve the state of transplants in the U.S.

According to the Health Resources & Services Administration, 17 people in the U.S. die every day waiting for an organ transplant. The issue is compounded by the fact that nearly 18% of all donated kidneys are discarded, according to a 2019 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. This high discard-rate is in part due to strict regulations and benchmarks that prevent doctors from using older or riskier kidneys.

The SherpaPak could at least prevent any further deterioration in transit and broaden the supply of all organ donations.

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