Doctors Take Human Lungs on Flight in Race Against Time to Save Patient

An organ transplant team transported a pair of lungs on a commercial aircraft in a race against time to save a patient's life after bad weather delayed their private flight.

In the early hours of January 28, a transplant team from Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, had to fly around 300 miles to Chicago to collect a pair of lungs for a dying patient, 67-year-old Mitchell Reynolds.

Surgeon Dr. Michael Pasque picked up the lungs at around 4:30 a.m., St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. As what are known as thoracic organs such as the lungs and heart are only viable outside of the body for 4 to 6 hours, the team didn't have long to get back to the hospital. In contrast, the liver is viable for 12, and kidneys for up to 36 hours.

The transplant team intended to return to the hospital in a small charter plane, but heavy snow and freezing fog scuppered that plan.

Dr. Katherine Caldwell, a resident physician, told FOX 2 Now: "It really felt like minutes to spare. It was very high stakes."

Caldwell told St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I am by nature a problem-solver... Someone tells me something can't be done, I'm like: OK, what is the workaround? Are the big planes flying? Is that something we can do?"

So the team headed over to Chicago Midway International Airport to see if flights on bigger commercial aircraft were able to fly in the storm, and found only one was leaving that morning at 6:20 a.m., which was in less than an hour. That meant they were unable to buy tickets online, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Caldwell told FOX 2 Now: "I walked up to the counter and told the ticket agent that I'm a doctor, this is a set of human lungs I'm carrying for an organ transplant, and you guys have a flight that leaves at 6:20. I need to be on it."

Dan Landson, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, told FOX 2 Now: "We are happy to play a small role in the overall story and wish the patient a speedy recovery."

The security team at the airport checked the cooler box by hand rather than using an x-ray machine, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

After running through the airport in awkward operating theater shoes, Caldwell and transplant coordinator Alex Benton got to the gate with minutes to spare, and boarded the aircraft as the doors were about to close.

The pilot assessed the situation and allowed the cooler box its own seat on the flight. The team then had to endure waiting an hour for the aircraft to be de-iced.

Caldwell told St. Louis Post-Dispatch the team "got lots of stares."

In St. Louis, Caldwell and Benton were let off the flight first, and ran to an ambulance awaiting their arrival. They made it to the hospital at around 9 a.m.

"By the time both lungs were in. It was right between that 6-to-8-hour mark," Caldwell told St. Louis Dispatch. "Just a half an hour later, they probably wouldn't have been able to use both lungs."

Barnes-Jewish Hospital said in a Facebook post about the incident: "Our Transplant Center is one of the oldest and most experienced in the world, but this is a first."

According to St. Louis Dispatch, the operation was a success and Reynolds was well enough to go home.

His pulmonologist Dr. Ramsey Hachem told St. Louis Dispatch: "It was a truly life-saving situation that couldn't happen without donor lungs, and it happened in the nick of time."

organ transplant
A stock image shows a cool box used to transport organs for transplants. Getty Images