For Shirley Lockhart, the news that Via Christi will not restart its kidney transplant program was a shock.
“That transplant center served half of the people in that state of Kansas,” said Lockhart, a Wichitan who had her transplant through the program just months before it was suspended in May 2012.
“There were so many people waiting for surgeons to come here, all anxiously waiting and all of a sudden they pull the plug?”
Last week, Via Christi officials announced they were ending plans to restart the program, despite efforts to recruit surgeons, hiring a new transplant coordinator and moving and renovating an area of the hospital for transplant coordination.
Via Christi suspended the program in May 2012 after four patients who had received transplants in the previous 12 months died within a three-week period and another suffered kidney failure but lived.
Hospital officials said an investigation of the deaths showed no common threads.
The reason the hospital decided not to move forward was a focus more on population health and prevention, said Carl Rider, chief clinical administrative officer for Via Christi Hospitals Wichita in an interview last week.
“Every organization only has so much capital, so when you’re weighing alternatives, do I invest in a transplant program that will affect a very small number of people when there are three transplant centers within two to three hours? Or do we invest more in primary care facilities, behavioral health services that affect a much greater number in the population? So it’s that sort of strategic tipping point that we have reached.”
The hospital’s extension from the United Network for Organ Sharing, an accreditation body, also ran out earlier this year.
The decision by Via Christi shows a “callous disregard for patients,” Lockhart said.
“This is a great example of elitist medicine,” she said. “What they need is people with the correct insurance and enough money to live in different cities, pay for a motel and food while still paying all the bills at home. If someone can afford that, then yes, they can get a transplant. But someone who can’t afford it can’t get it.”
“This is a case of people making decisions on profit and not patients.”
When a patient has a transplant they have to stay in the city where they had the transplant for months afterward while they make sure their body isn’t rejecting the organ.
Many families can’t afford to pick up and leave for a city two or three hours away that has transplant services, said nephrologist Dennis Ross with Kansas Nephrology Physicians.
“Many patients are indigent. They can barely afford to get dialysis, let alone travel to another center,” Ross said.
One option, Ross said, is for the transplant centers in cities like Denver, Oklahoma City or Kansas City to develop a transplant clinic in Wichita where patients here could at least have evaluations and follow up done so they don’t have to travel as much.
Travel would still be required if a major complication occurred, he said, but it could help.
“They could start the clinic, fund it and bring nurse specialists and others to see patients locally,” he said.
Currently, the Kansas Dialysis Association collects money for people who need help covering the costs of transplant and travel, Ross said. The association can be contacted through local nephrologist offices.
For some, the suspension of the program was a good thing. Pam Byers thinks it was a blessing.
The retired Stanley Elementary teacher started dialysis in September 2012 for polycystic kidney disease, which leads to renal failure. She was preparing for a kidney transplant in Wichita when Via Christi suspended its program.
“I was very frustrated, anxious and impatient with the process of having to start all over,” she said.
Byers ended up having her transplant done at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
“They had their act together,” she said. “In the end, I was thankful I was at Oklahoma City and not St. Francis.”
Her living donor, Chris Hockett – a librarian at Stanley Elementary – came with her. She continues to go to Oklahoma City every six months for a checkup.
Byers was able to pay for her transplant and the related costs because of Medicare and Coventry insurance through USD 259.
“I feel like all the doors opened for me and it was a great experience,” she said.
The kidney transplant program at Via Christi originally started in 1981 and had performed more than 1,100 transplants.
After the May 2012 suspension, the two transplant surgeons, Charles Shield and Anthony Rezcallah, left Wichita Surgical Specialists, which provided physicians for the program. Shield retired and Rezcallah resigned.
In 2012, Via Christi’s program was on track to perform about 50 transplants, which is a relatively small number, Ross said.
There are plenty of candidates for transplants in Wichita, Ross said, and there are about 1,000 patients on dialysis between Wichita Nephrology Group and Kansas Nephrology Physicians’ practices.