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

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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.”

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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.

Put another way, twice as many St. Luke’s patients died within a year as would have been expected, taking into account patient characteristics and illnesses.

Broken Hearts

David Kveton died after a failed heart transplant at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. At first, his wife thought he had just been unlucky. Then she received an anonymous letter from someone at the hospital.

In January, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited the heart transplant program for its significantly worse-than-expected outcomes and threatened to cut off Medicare funds in August if the problems were not fixed, according to a letter obtained by ProPublica and the Chronicle. The program has since submitted a plan of correction and avoided the loss of federal funds.

Many of the program’s troubles are spelled out in data published by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to track and analyze transplant outcomes. SRTR reports, released twice a year, serve as a scorecard for transplant programs, capturing and presenting data on patient survival that spans a rolling 30-month period.

The hospital says it made changes when outcomes began to decline. After a string of transplant patient deaths in 2015, the program hired Morgan as its surgical director and became more conservative, removing some higher-risk patients from its waiting list. It is also more selective than its peers in


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