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At St. Luke's in Houston, Patients Suffer as a Renowned Heart Transplant Program Loses Its Luster

By ProPublica  
   May 16, 2018

The hospital and its legendary surgeon Denton Cooley performed some of the world's first heart transplants back in the 1960s. In recent years, though, it has had some of the worst heart transplant outcomes in the country.

This article first appeared May 16, 2017 on ProPublica.

By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle

The anonymous letter reached Judy Kveton in March 2017. Nearly two months earlier, her husband’s failed heart transplant at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center had led to a week of follow-up surgeries, a pair of devastating strokes and then, his death. The donor heart that doctors had implanted in David Kveton was “just not acting right,” Judy remembers the surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Morgan, telling her hours before she decided to remove her husband from life support.

The letter mailed to her home in nearby Fort Bend County — one page, single-spaced and folded into an envelope with no return address — told a different story.

It said St. Luke’s has had some of the worst heart transplant outcomes in the country. It said other physicians had specifically voiced concerns about Morgan, the program’s lead surgeon. And it said, despite “numerous complications, deaths, and poor outcomes,” administrators had not done enough to correct the problems.

“I feel that David was not given the opportunity he deserved after struggling with his disease for so long.”

Signed, “Concerned.”

The note left Judy in tears. Although it didn’t specify what went wrong with her husband’s transplant, it made her doubt the reasons she and her husband chose St. Luke’s more than a decade earlier, when his heart began to fail. The Houston hospital, which is affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Heart Institute, has long held itself out as one of the best in the world for heart surgery.

But in recent years, the famed program has performed an outsized number of transplants resulting in deaths or unusual complications, has lost several top physicians and has scaled back its ambition for treating high-risk patients, all the while marketing itself based on its storied past, an investigation by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle reveals.

St. Luke’s heart transplant survival rate, the most important measure of a program’s quality, now ranks near the bottom nationally, according to the most recently published data. Among St. Luke’s patients who received a new heart between the summer of 2014 and the end of 2016, just 85 percent survived at least one year, compared to 91.4 percent nationally.

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ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.


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