Heart transplants rarely get much press these days. Some 5,000 a year are performed safely worldwide, a dozen or so just in Mexico. But when a pair of medics spilled a human heart from its cooler two weeks ago as they raced the organ to a Mexico City hospital bed, they may well have made medical history.
Thanks to satellite television.
Removed hours earlier from the 20-year-old victim of a car crash, the organ was placed in a surgical cooler and whisked by ambulance, executive jet, and police helicopter on a 280-mile interstate journey from León, in the central state of Guanajuato, to a hospital in the Mexican capital. There Erika Hernandez, a 27-year-old hairstylist with a congenital heart condition, had been waiting for years for just such an occasion.
Mexico City police shepherding the medical teams described the operation as “a precision maneuver.” It looked more like a near-tragic bungle. In their scramble to whisk the freshly harvested organ to waiting physicians at La Raza hospital, the medics retrieved the cooler from a police helicopter and turned to trot quickly on the pitted asphalt, with the wheeled cooler in tow.
When one member of the emergency team stumbled, the cooler lid popped open and a bulky plastic bundle containing the heart rolled out onto the asphalt, along with ice and bags of saline solution.
The medics quickly gathered and stored the bagged heart back in the cooler and continued their jog to the hospital, with TV crews in hot pursuit.
Fortunately, the organ was triple-wrapped and stored in a steel basin, and so remained “perfectly protected,” Dr. César Villaseñor, head of heart surgery, later told reporters at the hospital. Not so the reputation of the medics, whose whole Keystone cardiac caper was caught live by the international media before going viral on the Web.
A family doctor told reporters that Hernandez was unaware of the accidental journey her new heart made.
Which is probably just as well. Three years ago, after a series of dizzy spells, Hernandez discovered she had a congenital heart condition.
“I began to have problems fainting and found I was short of breath,” she told the Mexican media. The hairdresser, who had always been extremely thin, brushed it off as nothing serious. Then her doctors told her she needed a heart transplant. “I was quite scared but also happy because at least I knew I had a chance to stay alive,” she recently told La Crónica de Hoy.
After physicians successfully transplanted the heart, Hernandez was released from the hospital yesterday. Flushed and smiling, she was wheeled out to hail the cameras and cheering crowds, unaware she’d been twice born again. “I have no words to express my feelings at this moment,” she said.