As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, Intermountain Healthcare’s abdominal transplant program has created new protocols and safety measures to ensure that these lifesaving procedures continue.
Although many nonessential planned surgeries and procedures have been delayed, recent guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services identified organ transplants as procedures that should not be postponed if possible, categorizing them as “essential.”
To help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and continue patient care, Intermountain clinicians are using telemedicine and video visits whenever possible to continue evaluating and treating potential transplant patients.
Transplant clinicians have also put systems in place to maintain patient and caregiver safety.
“Donors and recipients are considered on a case-by-case basis,” said Diane Alonso, transplant surgeon and director of abdominal transplant surgery for Intermountain Healthcare. “It’s a balancing act. We take into account the risks of postponing surgery with the risks of not only the surgery, but also the risk of potentially being exposed to the virus.”
One of those cases is Brent Akisada, 66, a recent kidney transplant recipient from Roy, Utah.
On April 17, Akisada got the call from a transplant coordinator that a new kidney was available for him. He did not even think about saying, “No” to the kidney.
Akisada is a type 2 diabetic and had been on the waiting list for a new kidney for about a year, but had expected to be waiting longer because his kidney was a difficult match.
“COVID-19 actually helped me,” said Akisada. “Since other hospitals were not doing transplants. I got a kidney that could have gone somewhere else.”
The next day, Akisada got that gift of life.
“I was really shocked it was that quick,” said Akisada. “Everything just fell into place.”
Now, just eight weeks from surgery, Akisada is home and taking extra precautions to stay safe from COVID-19 since he’s considered a “high risk” patient.
“What Intermountain has done is make this life saving procedure a priority,” said Richard Gilroy, MD, transplant hepatologist and Intermountain Healthcare’s liver transplant medical director. “We’ve made changes, adapted, put systems in place and we’re changing the lives of our patients.”
Intermountain surgical teams have performed 83 kidney, kidney/pancreas, liver, and pancreas transplants this year.
“This pace puts us on track for eclipsing last year’s record number of transplants,” said Dr. Gilroy.
In accordance with state and national professional transplant society recommendations, living donations for both kidney and liver are also being carefully considered before scheduling surgery.
“The concern in living donation is the risk to the donor who could contract the virus during their hospitalization and put them at risk for major health complications in what is otherwise a healthy individual,” said Dr. Alonso. “Our goal is to continue to care for our patients to provide this life saving procedure whenever it’s safe to do so without putting other healthy individuals at risk.”
Currently the Intermountain transplant team, local government, and hospitals are planning for careful reinstatement of select living donation transplants in a manner that will protect the donor and minimize their personal risk for exposure to COVID, while still taking care of the patients and transplant team health care providers.
Transplant patients, family members and caregivers encourage all to say, “Yes!” and register as an organ donor. Register at intermountainhealthcare.org/donatelife .