Thankful: Trailblazing Heart Donation Made Possible by Benefis Team

​When Michael Needham's family made the decision to donate his heart, they gave Ryan Stovall a second chance at life. 
Ryan, 48, was working in Seattle when he suddenly became sick. He thought he had pneumonia, but a trip to the hospital revealed that his lungs were full of blood.  

“It was a definite shock, he said. “Out of nowhere, my heart had stopped pumping properly. Within a few hours, it quit because of a massive heart attack. My doctors didn't expect that I would last even another month on the transplant list.”
Then came Michael Needham. He wasn't registered as an organ donor, but his mother and sister made that decision on his behalf, and they helped make medical history. 
The Benefis Health System team and LifeCenter Northwest, the organ procurement organization for the region, teamed up with UW Medical Center for the Pacific Northwest’s first donation-after-circulatory-death (DCD) heart transplant.
"This incredible advancement in technology and life-saving donation would not have been possible without the donor, his family, and Benefis Health System," Mallory Wood, senior hospital development program manager at LifeCenter Northwest, told us. 
"The logistics and collaboration between LifeCenter Northwest and the hospital were vital to ensure Michael’s heart could be recovered and successfully transplanted. Having a supportive donation culture, continuous communication, and support from the OR and ICU team made this case possible," she said. "Benefis demonstrated an immense amount of professionalism and expertise while supporting the donation process. Without the collaboration of Benefis, and most importantly the donor and his family, this transplant couldn’t have happened. Now, one more individual has a second chance at life thanks to the generosity of this donor.”
For decades, only donor hearts from patients who experienced brain death have been transplanted. Hearts from patients who experienced circulatory death were deemed less predictable in terms of their long-term viability. The game-changer was technology that keeps blood and nutrients pulsing through donor hearts after recovery and during transit. The Transmedics Organ Care System (OCS) enables doctors to closely monitor the organs’ health and ensure suitability for transplantation.
Research has shown that clinical outcomes of recipients of DCD hearts transported in the device have positive outcomes similar to recipients of hearts from brain-dead donors. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the OCS device with hearts donated after circulatory death.
In September, the United States tallied its one millionth organ transplant.
Not even 1% of people die in a manner that allows them to become an organ donor. That makes every donation precious — a truly remarkable gift.

“It’s very rare to be able to become an organ donor, to meet that criteria,” said Brandi Cornwell, RN, manager of the Benefis Operating Room. She leads the donation program at Benefis. “It’s a gift, such a rare opportunity.”
As of August 2022, only 496 U.S. heart transplants have involved a DCD organ — and of those, 489 have happened since 2020. LifeCenter Northwest anticipates that reaching the 2 million donations mark will be quicker with technology such as the OCS device.
As for Ryan, he is recovering well and grateful for all Michael, Benefis, and the transplant team made possible for him. 
“What do you say about the people who saved your life? A huge thank you obviously doesn’t seem even close to being enough,” Ryan said. “Michael passed away and saved my life. I think about his sacrifice and his family’s sacrifice … I would like to thank his family and meet them one day.”
Ryan Stovall's photo is courtesy of UV Medical Center.