Heart transplant surgeons in Northern California said a sudden shortage of donor hearts has developed, crippling their programs and leaving some patients to die.
They said the number of transplants at Stanford University Medical Center and Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco has fallen dramatically since the first of the year.
Stanford doctors transplanted 71 hearts last year, 24% more than in 1985. However, only six transplants have been performed so far this year, and four potential transplant patients at Stanford have died in the same period while waiting as long as two months for new hearts. The death figure equals the total for all of 1986.
The Northern California Transplant Bank in California could not find a single heart for transplantation in January, as compared with 10 in January, 1986, director Phyllis Weber said.
"We feel pretty helpless," said Marguerite Brown, donor coordinator for Stanford's transplant program. "There aren't any answers."
Officials speculate that the sudden lack of donor organs may be a result of safer driving conditions: use of seat belts and crackdowns on drunk driving. Donor hearts frequently come from traffic accident victims.
Others speculate that competition may also be playing a role in the Northern California shortage.
In Southern California, the shortage of hearts appears to be no more acute than in the past, according to Barbara Schulman, director of the Regional Organ Procurement Agency, the organization that obtains donor organs for waiting recipients.
She said Monday that 18 adult patients and one child are on the waiting list for hearts, compared to 17 adults and two children one year ago.
Schulman speculated that an increase in the number of transplant centers in the West in recent years may have diverted donor hearts to facilities other than Stanford, which is one of six centers to which her agency sends organs. The others are Pacific Presbyterian, UCLA Medical Center, Loma Linda University Medical Center, the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson and Sharp Hospital in San Diego.
Until 1980, Stanford was the only center in the West that did heart transplants. Schulman explained that it is customary for procurement agencies to meet local needs first.