SALT LAKE CITY — Intermountain Healthcare's first-ever jet is being used to traverse the United States to retrieve organs for use in transplant procedures, marking a significant step forward for the organization's ability to help those on waiting lists, health system executives said.
Monday marked the first public unveiling of Intermountain's Cessna Citation/CJ4 jet, though it was made fully operational earlier this month. Unlike the organization's helicopters and other planes, the jet was built first and foremost to aid in speedy retrieval of organs for transplant.
"Every minute (an organ) is outside of a donor's body has an impact on the potential of that organ transplant working," said Dr. Richard Gilroy, medical director of the liver transplant program at Intermountain Medical Center.
Gilroy said that's why the $7 million aircraft — shown to reporters Monday at the Intermountain Life Flight hangar — is critically important in retrieving organs while it's still possible they can help people.
"We will see with this more lives saved. … If we're not available to get to those donors, that donor provides no saving of life," he said.
The new aircraft is the first jet to be used by Intermountain Healthcare, though it also has six helicopters and three fixed-wing turboprop planes. The jet, which is intended to specialize in long flights and could retrieve an organ from across the country if needed, doubles as a patient transport ambulance for people more than 300 miles from Salt Lake City.
The jet first began operation in November 2016, though that was "in a limited capacity," said Jess Gomez, Intermountain Healthcare spokesman.
"As of this month, a specially designed interior medical kit has been finished," Gomez explained.
The new aircraft is an exciting prospect to families who have lived through the stress of waiting for a liver transplant such as Meinkina "Kina" Jewkes, 12, of Emery County, and her parents.
"I'm happy for other kids because I know how I felt when I first got my transplant," Kina said. "I mean, it's hard, but (overall) it's better in the long run. I hope that other kids that are not healthy right now can get better right now by liver transplants."
Kina was 9 when she began developing severe itching symptoms that were eventually traced back to a dysfunctional liver. In August 2016, she was put on a liver transplant waitlist, and she and her parents had to be ready to travel to Primary Children's Hospital at a moment's notice.
After close calls in December, when the donor liver was unusable due to blood clots, and February, when the half of a liver split for two children to use was too small for her, Kina finally got a match in April, said her mother, Jennifer Jewkes.
The transplant was not an easy life experience, Kina said, especially having to deal with a regimen of prednisone and spending time far from friends and loved ones. But those obstacles were well worth the new life the transplant gave her, Kina said, and it's a turnaround she hopes others can experience as well.
"I don't have to worry about itching in school and stuff like that, and it's just easier than it was," she said. "People have worked really hard to get these planes built and to save kids and even grown-ups."
Intermountain Life Flight will use the jet in partnership with Intermountain Donor Services, a separate organization headquartered in Salt Lake City that focuses on organ procurement.
Intermountain Donor Services, which serves Utah, southeastern Idaho, western Wyoming and the Elko, Nevada area, enabled 350 organ transplantations in 2015, according to data from that year's annual report.
Updates to nationwide policies on organ transplants in recent years have given health organizations in sparsely populated regions "a real problem," said Tracy Schmidt, executive director of Intermountain Donor Services.
"Opportunities were being lost to get organs here," Schmidt said. "The impact on us out West was quite difficult."
Obtaining the jet is a major step to ensuring life-saving opportunities that fall through the cracks for people on transplant waiting lists become fewer and fewer, he said.
"We are excited about how it all came together," Schmidt said.
The jet increases Intermountain Life Flight's reach because it can "fly faster, further, higher and with greater comfort," said Kent Johnson, Life Flight's director of aviation operations.
The plane can reach speeds of about 500 mph — 190 mph faster than Life Flight's turboprop plane, Johnson said. It can get to about 45,000 feet — 10,000 feet higher than the organization's other planes — which allows for it to more easily fly above inclement weather, he said.
A majority of organ transplants for sick Utahns require the organ to be transported by air, Gilroy said.
Intermountain at times in the past has needed to reach out to other organizations with private jets about an organ retrieval opportunity, depending on the circumstances, he said. Those companies have not always been able to come up with a plane fast enough on short notice.
"We've had situations where potential donors weren't available to us because we couldn't get crews," Gilroy said.2 comments on this story
The new jet will help immensely in solving that problem, he said, thanks to its ability to travel rapidly and its status as an aircraft designed to prioritize organ retrievals above all else.
As of Monday, there were more than 116,500 people in the United States on the national organ transplant waiting list, according to data maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The department estimates that someone in the United States is added to the transplant waiting list every 10 minutes, and 20 people on the waiting list die per day on average.