Transplant proposal gains support at hearing

January 8, 2010
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Spectrum Health’s proposal to launch a heart transplant program drew favorable comments last week from a patient who is waiting for a new heart and from a doctor whose father-in-law faced the operation far from home.

Rahn Bentley, 49, of Kentwood, received a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, at Spectrum Health seven months ago, the second patient in the program that began in April. The portable machine helps his heart pump while he waits for a heart transplant. He said he suffers from an enlarged heart due to a congenital defect.

“It was nice to be in Grand Rapids, where I had all the support of my friends and everything,” said Bentley, who spent 40 days in the hospital when he received the LVAD. “It’s something that really played a role in my getting better, because I had numerous complications.”

Bentley said he fears that when he finally undergoes the transplant in Chicago, he won’t have as much support because of the distance. His other concerns: the cost of travel for monthly appointments, and communication glitches between his doctors there and those at Spectrum Health who are responsible for his pre- and post-transplant care.

Bentley spoke at last week’s Alliance for Health public hearing about the Spectrum proposal, which is slated to go before the health planning agency’s evaluation board Jan. 21.

From there, the proposal moves to the Michigan Department of Community Health’s Certificate of Need Commission.

Dr. Robert Camp, a hospitalist for Spectrum Health subsidiary Michigan Medical PC, described the hardships that rained on his wife’s family while his father-in-law went through the transplant experience at Northwestern University in Chicago.

High parking rates forced his in-laws to leave their car behind, turning simple trips to the grocery, pharmacy and doctor’s office into challenges. Even after his father-in-law returned to the Grand Rapids area, frequent doctor appointments in Chicago were time consuming and expensive, and forced family members to take time off of work to accompany him. A problem with his LVAD prompted an emergency flight to Chicago in the middle of the night.

Camp also described challenges he faces as a physician caring for heart patients whose transplant centers are many miles away.

“You have to call multiple physicians far away. They’re difficult to get a hold of. They’re in another time zone. Simple things like medication have to go through multiple people. And I can’t tell you now much simpler that would be if that were available here,” Camp said.

“At this point in time, in my opinion, I think three or four hours is a long way to go to get a treatment which has become the standard for end-stage heart patients, when so much else is also available here. I think that’s really the context we have to put this in: A town of this size, with the infrastructure that is currently available here, it is reasonable for this town to get it (a heart transplant program.) From a personal and professional level, I feel strongly this is something that should be available locally.”

Spectrum Vice President Robert Meeker noted that, over time, new technology tends to spread across the state. However, that has not occurred in the case of heart transplants, which today occur only at Henry Ford Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Michigan and the University of Michigan Hospital.

“I think it’s time now where access to transplant services needs to be beyond just Southeast Michigan,” he said.

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