Lung transplant canceled due to short working hours at Tartu Airport

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Tartu Airport. Source: Tartu Airport

A patient requiring lung transplantation due to severe coronavirus complications has been left without a donor organ on several occasions as the Tartu Airport only works on weekdays after most routes have been suspended.

A patient requiring a new lung in Tartu has been close on multiple occasions over the last months to returning to their chance at a normal life. While finding a suitable organ for transplantation can be compared to winning the lottery, the winner has not been able to cash out their win yet.

Virge Palli, head of the transplantation unit of the Tartu University Hospital, said: "Unfortunately, he have had to say no to several suitable lungs for the patient because we have not been able to fly out to get them."

The most recent case happened just two weeks ago when an organ was found in a Scandinavian country, but as was the case for the two prior organs, the process was cancelled as the Tartu Airport was closed and there was no chance to take off for an emergency medical flight.

Tanel Laisaar, the first surgeon in Estonia to perform a lung transplantion, said he is very disturbed by the situation at hand. While there have been situations before where discussions had to be had with airports, the current transplantation stands behind closed doors as the airport does not operate outside of working hours.

Virge Palli said the situation became complicated once the route between Tartu and Helsinki was suspended due to the coronavirus. "The Finnish line made our situation simpler, it came at night, meaning the airport was practically open all night," Palli said.

She added that Tartu Airport was prepared to serve medical flights until November, but they have exclusively been open on weekdays since December.

If the hospital has been able to reach the airport during their working hours, the staff there have been more than prepared to serve the medical flights outside working hours.

The immediate use of the airfield in Tartu is critical when it comes to an organ transplantation however. "The time thoracic organs can be outside the body is so short that we can only bring them to Tallinn from Helsinki and then bring them to Tartu by ambulance. We cannot go any further than that," Palli said.

The Scandiatransplant center searches for suitable organs for Estonian patients in Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

Einari Bambus, manager of the Tallinn Airport airfield, said the issue stems from the coronavirus pandemic which has caused airports to cut costs. "Once the flight route between Tartu and Helsinki was broken off, we reduced our workforce and went over to one shift, meaning we work 9-to-5 from Monday to Friday," Bambus explained.

He added that flights can be conducted outside of working hours if it has been agreed to beforehand. Servicing a flight requires at least six people on staff. An air traffic controller from Lennuliiklusteeninduse AS and an Environment Agency meteorologist is also needed.

"It is true that we have been in situations where we have unfortunately not been able to gather up all necessary parties," Bambus noted.

Emergency flights are always available, but sufficient notification is required. "I certainly understand that it is difficult to ensure for donor flights, but it is also difficult for us to react in this situation," Bambus said.

He added that opening the airport gets more complicated with shorter notification periods, especially considering staff does not live in the immediate vicinity. Bambus said the recent transplant flights have fallen on weekends and it is complicated to get people to work if they live 100 km from the airport for example.

"Over the last six months, we have been able to service nine medical donor flights with six of those inside working hours and three outside of working hours. We have done that and will continue to do so going forward," he ensured.

Bambus added that the airport would require twice as much staff to ensure no donor flights would have to be cancelled however.

Virge Palli said she understands the airport's complicated situation. "If the hospital needs to conduct a few flights a month, nobody will begin hiring people for that. We can only hope on government decisions or the pandemic's withdrawal and the restoration of air traffic," she said.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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