Good news for NY's heart transplant patients

With Long Island’s first-ever heart transplant program now open at Northwell Health and an increased emphasis on New York’s statewide organ-donor registration program, things are improving for the state’s heart failure patients.

When it comes to matters of the heart, we’d do well to consider the numbers. There are about 360 New York residents awaiting heart transplants, making our state’s waiting list one of the longest in the country, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a national nonprofit organization that tracks organ donations.

Every year, 500 New Yorkers die waiting for a life-saving heart — an average of one death every 18 hours. Unfortunately, the state has the third-lowest overall organ-donor registration rate in the country. That’s partly because so many New Yorkers who live in the five boroughs — 57 percent, according to 2016 state Department of Motor Vehicles figures and planning data — don’t have driver’s licenses. As a result, the state is deprived of the easiest and most-convenient way for people to register as organ donors. Because donations are prioritized based on geographical proximity, New Yorkers are at a massive disadvantage.

But that is changing. In October, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced measures to increase organ donations across the state, directing state agencies to provide the public with new ways to register as organ donors. We’re already making some headway. Last year, more than 84,000 New Yorkers signed up with the Donate Life Registry — a positive and important step.

The first heart transplant program on Long Island

Equally important is a change that impacts Long Islanders. This month, Northwell Health, which accounts for 40 percent of the heart transplant cases referred to NYC, received state approval to perform heart transplant surgeries. It’s a first on Long Island, and a lifesaver for a population of 7.5 million people who were otherwise forced to travel to Manhattan or the Bronx to undergo this complicated surgery. To the uninitiated, traveling to New York City for life-saving care might not seem like a big deal. But ask any Long Island family whose loved one has received a new heart and you will begin to understand the significant burden placed on both patients and caregivers. 

That’s because post-transplant follow-up care is more than a little overwhelming. In the first month after transplant surgery, weekly visits are required of the patient; for the next six months or so, monthly follow-up appointments are considered standard. The addition of an hour or two of commuting time, and the expense of travel, put an unnecessary burden on Long Island’s heart transplant patients and their families.

Thankfully, Long Island heart failure patients can now receive transplant services here at home. 

Proximity to high-quality care also means access to the latest technological advances, which means good things for those suffering with advanced heart failure. That’s because doctors are using not only cutting-edge tools to perform the procedures, but also they are employing advanced programs to better identify potential donors. 

That’s important because the sooner doctors can identify candidates for donation, the greater the chance they are able to save the life of a patient.

This op-ed also appeared in Newsday.

Northwell was approved to begin performing heart transplants in 2018

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Spotlight on organ transplants 2018