MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) - The National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI) is threatening to sue budget carrier Cebu Pacific for barring a medical team carrying donated kidneys to board its plane last Saturday.
Dr. Reynaldo Lesaca Jr., head of the Human Organ Preservation Effort of the NKTI, said their organ retrieval team was not allowed to board Cebu Pacific Flight No. 328 from Legaspi, Albay to Manila as the pilot, Capt. Reuven Locson, claimed the "smell of blood" could be "offensive" to passengers.
Lesaca, however, argued that the kidneys from deceased donors "were properly and carefully placed in a preservative solution and packed in sterile ice, and the canisters were inside a cooler."
Thus, he said, "there is no way any odor of blood that could possibly be offensive to passengers will be emitted."
“The team tried, albeit in vain, to explain to the pilot that this is not so. He still decided without making an ocular inspection of the precious cargo in question,” Dr. Lesaca wrote, adding that the kidneys were “not toxic, illegal or contraband.”
“In spite of the explanation they (retrieval team) gave... the team was refused carriage by the pilot,” Lesaca said.
Instead of the 45-minute flight, Lesaca said the team had to take a 10 to 12 hour land trip from Legaspi to the NKTI in Quezon City where two potential recipients of the kidneys were waiting.
“This incident has placed the viability of the deceased donor kidneys in jeopardy. One kidney was eventually transplanted to one patient with a very guarded outcome,” Lesaca said.
"The other kidney went to waste because it was no longer suitable for transplant to the other waiting recipient," he added.
In a statement, Cebu Pacific said its personnel only acted in accordance with existing regulations on the transport of human organs.
"Cebu Pacific is bound to strictly follow existing regulations on the transport of human organs which are meant to protect passengers' health in case of any leakage. They refer to packaging, labelling and carriage, with the latter specifically prohibiting the containers from being carried on passengers' laps."
The budget airline also said it regrets the incident, but noted that future complications could easily be avoided through better coordination.
"The airline regrets the incident but hopes that moving forward, this will not happen again. It is willing to coordinate with organizations involved in such humanitarian efforts to inform them about proper handling. Passengers who have immediate similar needs may also contact Cebu Pacific stations managers who will coordinate with central operations to provide proper and timely assistance."
NKTI said the incident came as a surprise since its organ retrieval team had previously flown on Cebu Pacific from Naga, Cebu, and Cagayan de Oro.
“We have had problems before with the ground personnel but never with a pilot denying carriage of a donor kidney,” Lesaca said.
He pointed out that in November 2008, the Department of Health had directed all domestic commercial airlines to “allow and give priority to the transplant team to travel and transport vital human organs needed for transportation (e.g. kidneys, liver, etc.).”
Around 10,000 Filipinos develop kidney failure every year, but only 1 in every 20 (around 500) receives a kidney transplant. Around 70% start life-long dialysis, but many of them die since they cannot afford prolonged dialysis treatment or a kidney transplant. Suitable donors are also hard to come by.
"One deceased donor (from accident or trauma victims) can save and extend the lives of two or more patients with end-stage organ failure. All sectors of society need to be more sensitive to the efforts of the medical community in saving lives," Lesaca said.