Unvaccinated hospital patient refuses heart transplant

A Boston hospital is defending itself after a man’s family claims he was denied a new heart for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine, saying most transplant programs across the country have made similar demands to improve patients’ chances of survival .

DJ Ferguson’s family said in a crowdfunding appeal this week that officials at Brigham and Women’s Hospital told the 31-year-old father of two that he was ineligible for the surgery because he had not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“We’re really in a corner right now. It’s very time-sensitive,” the family said in the fundraising appeal, which has raised tens of thousands of dollars. “This is not just a political issue. People need to have a choice!”

DJ’s mother, Tracey Ferguson, insists her son is not opposed to vaccinations, noting that he has had other vaccinations in the past. But the trained nurse said Wednesday that he had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation — an irregular and often fast heart rhythm — and he was concerned about the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“DJ was an informed patient,” Tracy Ferguson said in a brief interview at her Menden home, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) southwest of Boston. “He wants his doctor to reassure him that his condition will not be worsened or fatal by this COVID vaccine.”

Brigham and Women’s Hospital declined to comment on DJ Ferguson’s case, citing patient privacy laws. But it pointed to a response it posted on its website, which said the COVID-19 vaccine is one of several immunizations required by most U.S. transplant programs, including the flu and hepatitis B shots.

The hospital said research shows transplant recipients are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than non-transplant patients, and that its policies are in line with the recommendations of the American Society for Transplantation and other health organizations.

Patients must also meet other health and lifestyle criteria to receive a donated organ, and it’s unclear whether DJ Ferguson will meet those criteria.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital also emphasizes that no patient is placed on the organ waiting list without meeting these criteria and rejects the idea that a transplant candidate can be considered “first on the list” for an organ – Ferguson ‘s family made the claim in its fundraising post.

“There are currently more than 100,000 candidates on the waiting list for organ transplants and there is a shortage of available organs – about half of those on the waiting list will not have access to organs within five years,” the hospital said.

Hospitals in other states have faced similar criticism for refusing transplants to patients who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Last year in Colorado, a woman with end-stage kidney disease said her hospital refused to accept a transplant because she had not been vaccinated. Born-again Christian Leilani Lutali says she opposes immunization because of the role fetal cell lines play in the development of certain vaccines.

Donor organs are scarce, so transplant centers only waitlist patients they think are most likely to survive with a new organ.

“Donating a heart is a precious and scarce gift that must be properly cared for,” said Dr. Howard Eisen, medical director of the Advanced Heart Failure Program at Penn State University in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “Our goal is to maintain patient survival and good outcomes after transplantation.”

Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that manages the country’s organ transplant system, doesn’t track how many patients who have been denied the COVID-19 vaccine have been denied transplants.

Patients who are denied organ transplants still have the right to go elsewhere, although individual hospitals ultimately decide which patients to add to the national waiting list, she said.

DJ Ferguson was hospitalized in late November with a heart attack that left his lungs filling with blood and fluid, according to an online fundraiser. He was then transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where doctors inserted an emergency heart pump, which the family said was only a temporary stopgap.

“It was devastating,” Tracy Ferguson said. “Nobody wants to see their children go through something like this.”

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