It was unclear what the heart was intended for and whether anyone’s life was ever in danger. But the organ was supposed to be left in Seattle.
On Sunday afternoon, a Southwest Airlines flight bound for Dallas made a hairpin turn over eastern Idaho and headed back for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The reason, the captain told passengers: Someone forgot to unload a human heart.
Dr. Andrew Gottschalk recalled that his fellow passengers went through a series of reactions to the news, the first shock. A human heart being transported on a commercial carrier? But the next reaction was of kindness because everyone on board “was happy to save a life,” he said.
The captain went on to explain that the heart should have been left in Seattle after an earlier flight from Sacramento.
Then horror sank in, Gottschalk said, as some passengers with an internet connection began to research how long a heart could be viable for a transplant — mere hours.
Southwest confirmed that the flight had to return to Seattle on Sunday afternoon after officials realized the plane was still carrying the heart intended for delivery to a hospital.
But additional details, including its intended destination and what it was being used for, remain unclear. Also unknown is whether anyone’s life was ever in danger.
Southwest flight 3606 landed at Sea-Tac after about three hours in the air, and the “life-critical cargo shipment” was unloaded from the plane, Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said by email. He added that Southwest made the decision to return because it was “absolutely necessary to deliver the shipment to its destination in the Seattle area as quickly as possible.”
“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and the safe delivery of the precious cargo we transport every day,” Landson said.
The sender was a company that specializes in shipments that are “life critical,” which can mean organs for transplant, medications or specimens for treatments, said Southwest, which did not provide the name of the company.
But no Seattle-area hospitals said they were involved. Spokeswomen for regional organ-procurement organizations in Washington and California both said they never use commercial flights for heart transplants.
“We only use private flights,” said Katherine Pliska, spokeswoman for LifeCenter Northwest, the organization that facilitates the transfer of organs for transplant in the region. “There’s a time limit to get where it needs to go.”
Southwest and many other airlines work with companies that ship organs for transplants, among other perishables such as human remains, to maximize revenue, though it accounts for less than 1 percent of Southwest’s total revenue, the Dallas Business Journal reported last year. Other parts of a heart, such as heart valves and vessels, can be recovered when a whole heart transplant isn’t feasible, according to LifeCenter Northwest.
Passenger Gottschalk, a doctor who cares for professional athletes at his medical practice in New Orleans, called the incident a “horrific story of gross negligence,” no matter where the heart was intended to go.
“The heart in question traveled from California, to Washington, to the other side of Idaho, and back to Washington,” he said.
Once on the ground, passengers were also told to deplane — the aircraft had an unrelated mechanical issue, Landson said. After a five-hour delay, the passengers once again took off for Dallas.