Know the Facts: The Organ and Tissue Transportation Process

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In light of the recent news and attention surrounding a Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines flight that turned around to return a human heart to Seattle, we wanted to share some information about the organ and tissue preservation and transportation process.

While Donor Alliance cannot speak to that specific event as it’s out of our service area, we have been informed that the package contained a heart for tissue valve transplant which does not require as strict a timeline as a whole heart transplant nor require a medical escort. Our friends at Sierra Donor Services provided this information: “While this gift was rerouted, it was received unharmed by LifeNet Health to prepare the valves for future transplant. There was no intended recipient as heart valves are not immediately ready for transplant but need to be prepared by an accredited tissue processor.”

So, it’s a great time to share the facts of the process and clear up some of the inaccuracies surrounding recent news articles.

Organ and Tissue donation Process

Organ and Tissue donation Process

The Organ Donation Process

Organs recovered for transplant include: heart, lungs, kidney, liver, pancreas and small intestine.

-Preservation: Once the organs have been recovered, timing becomes essential for the success of the transplantation. Each organ is carefully preserved using special solutions and packed on ice for transportation to the Transplant Center where it will be transplanted. There are specific processes in place to ensure that each organ is packaged and labeled appropriately.

Transportation: Most organs travel to the hospital of the waiting recipient, escorted by the recovering surgeon and are then given to the surgeon who will perform the transplant. Since our service area covers all of Colorado and most of Wyoming, sometimes a flight is required to transport the organs from the donation hospital to the transplant center. In that case, we work closely with a private charter flight service to transport the organs to transplant centers. If a commercial flight is needed, the organs are always accompanied by a certified courier.

The Tissue Donation Process

Tissues recovered for transplant are: bones, tendons, heart valves, veins, arteries, skin, and corneas.

-Preservation: Once the tissues for transplantation are procured, they are carefully placed in the appropriate preservation solution, packaged and labeled. All tissues are preserved in coolers, where temperatures are monitored.

-Transportation: The tissues are couriered to the tissue processors, who perform additional testing on the tissues to ensure they are safe for transplantation and prepare them for the recipients. When the tissues are being transported from the recovery facility to the tissue processor there is regular and consistent communication between both parties to ensure that the tissues arrive within the necessary time frames. Hearts recovered for valve transplantation must arrive at the Processor facility within 24 hours of recovery. Because tissues are processed, there are varying preservation time frames, some tissues may be processed and stored for up to five years. The tissue processors use the recovered tissue to create numerous grafts for transplant in procedures such as ACL replacement, coronary artery bypass surgery, skin grafts, some dental procedures and more.

It’s important to remember, this is only a part of the organ and tissue donation and transplantation process. You can read more about the organ donation process and tissue donation process on our website.

At Donor Alliance, our mission is to save and heal lives through organ and tissue donation and transplantation. We’re also here to share the facts surrounding donation. If you ever have a question about donation and transplantation, we encourage you to visit our Donation FAQ page or call us at 303-329-4747. You can also visit our registry websites, or, to learn more and to sign up to be an organ, eye and tissue donor.