Phil Torres was just a couple of tests away from having a kidney transplant when Via Christi voluntarily suspended its program in Wichita last May.
After learning the news, Torres, 28, and his living donor – his cousin, Jessica Huff, 27 – had to start over with a new program at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
“It can make it a lot more complicated when you don’t have a local facility or hospital to do all the testing and the procedure,” Torres said.
If all goes according to plan, Via Christi officials say they expect their kidney transplant program to be reinstated within the next six months.
“The goal has not changed for us,” said Laurie Labarca, chief operating officer of Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. “It’s still to reactivate the program.”
Via Christi officials previously said they would need to have physicians in place by the end of May to avoid going through the entire accreditation process again. However, last week, the hospital was given preliminary approval for a six-month extension from the United Network for Organ Sharing, an accreditation body, Labarca said.
Most transplants are eligible for reimbursement dollars from Medicare, Labarca said, and representatives from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will visit the site and evaluate the transplant program to restart its Medicare funding.
Via Christi suspended its program last May after learning four transplant patients from the past year died within a three-week period and another suffered kidney failure but lived.
Officials said an investigation into the deaths showed no common threads, but they opted to have an outside group evaluate the program as well.
The next month, Charles Shield and Anthony Rezcallah left Wichita Surgical Specialists, which provided physicians for the program. Shield retired and Rezcallah resigned.
Now, the hospital is in the process of recruiting and interviewing two surgeons and a nephrologist, who would be directly employed by Via Christi, Labarca said.
So far, Via Christi has hired a new transplant program administrator. His name is not yet being released because he has not given notice to his current employer. He is slated to start at Via Christi in June, Labarca said.
Mark Stillwell, who previously held the position of kidney transplant outreach coordinator, will resume that role.
Most of the 17 supporting staff members who were shifted to other roles after the suspension will rejoin the program, Labarca said.
Dennis Ross, president of Kansas Nephrology Physicians, said that since the Via Christi program was suspended, patients in the area have had to travel to other locations, such as Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Denver and Nebraska.
“It puts a lot more burden on patients,” Ross said. “In our practice, we see some patients who are willing to do that and others that say it’s not possible, either they can’t afford it or have no one to look after them. It’s not easy.
“Wichita is looked upon as a referral center for patients all over the state for a variety of things, and if you want to maintain that status, you need to continue to offer special services like transplantations,” Ross said.
“It’s wise on their part to try to reinstate that program.”
At the time the program was suspended, 97 people were on the list to have a transplant.
Ten – including Torres – have had transplants elsewhere, while 42 patients have transferred to another program, opted to no longer be listed, or no longer qualify for a transplant. Forty-five patients remain on Via Christi’s list, and six of those are “double listed” at Via Christi and other programs, Labarca said.
On Feb. 28, Torres got a new kidney after spending two years on dialysis. He said it was stressful to have to start over with a new program at a new hospital, and that the change put a burden on his donor.
“I’d drive wherever I have to to get it done because being on dialysis is a life-changing experience,” Torres said.
“It takes a lot away from what you can do, but the donor is living a perfectly normal life. It would be a blessing to have a local program.”
Every few weeks, Torres said he still has to drive to Kansas City for follow-up appointments, but will soon be able to have his follow-ups at Via Christi.
Torres said he’s happy that Via Christi is working to restart the program to save others from the stress of traveling.
“I hope that whatever problems they had have been worked out,” he said of the program. “From the work-ups I had, they were great.”
Via Christi is also considering expanding its transplant program to multiple abdominal organs once the kidney program is in place, Labarca said.
“In the transplant world, what we found out through the recruitment process was that in order to identify and recruit highly trained transplant surgeons, most of these folks are multi-organ,” Labarca said.
Other potential organs are livers and pancreases, but Via Christi will need to conduct a community need assessment for that, Labarca said.
“If you’re only going to look at one organ, they’re not going to look at you,” Labarca said of transplant surgeons.
“We’ve identified that as an element of the recruitment process and knowing that, we’ll move forward. We know that’s got to be the future to stay in transplants.”
The additional organs could help increase volumes, which Ross said could help secure and maintain a strong program.
Last year, Via Christi’s program was on track to perform about 50 transplants, a relatively small number. Typically, a moderate program would do about 80 transplants a year; large programs do upwards of 140 per year.
The kidney transplant program was originally started in 1981 and had performed more than 1,100 transplants.
“One of the issues to be a successful transplant program is you have to do enough transplants,” Ross said. “For example, if you want to be a successful car mechanic but you only fix one car per month, you’re probably never going to get good enough at it.”
To prepare for the return of transplants, Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis is transitioning its transplant institute from the sixth floor to the second floor. The transplant institute offices include pre- and post-operative appointments. Transplants will be done in the surgery area of the hospital, Labarca said.
Construction on that area is expected to be completed in June.