Julie Sherwood Democrat & Chronicle
‘We Weren’t Sure What Was Going on.’ Organ Donor Flight Leaves From Small Canandaigua Airport
December 14, 2020
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  • CANANDAIGUA, NY — In the wee hours of Nov. 20, two jets touched down at the Canandaigua Airport. Landing in the predawn darkness of a chilly morning the Friday before Thanksgiving were surgical teams and support crew on a mission.

    The death of a young man from an overdose would save lives hundreds of miles away. But first, a team involving six pilots, four aircraft, four ambulance crews and six surgical personnel would have to accomplish what might be routine for them, yet extraordinary for those on the ground at the general aviation airport in Ontario County.

    “I was on call that night,” said Dan Brady, line service technician for Mercy Flight Central Aviation Services at the airport. Like others that morning working to ensure a smooth and successful transport of live-saving organs, Brady knew little of the details as he focused on his role. The planes, a Learjet and a Cessna, had to be fueled and ready to go in a heartbeat.

    They were.  

    The Learjet took the heart. The Cessna took lungs and liver.

    “We weren’t sure what was going on until it was nearly over,” said Bob Mincer, Canandaigua Airport manager. The airport got word there the day before and knew what had to be done. This was not the first time the Canandaigua Airport had served aircraft for organ transplants. Mincer estimated such flights take place about six times a year. 

    But not to the extent of what took place this day.

    Airport records show both jets arrived from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, a general aviation relief airport about 14 miles from Manhattan. The first flight arrived at 3:30 a.m. and the planes remained at the airport until takeoff about six hours later, at 9:31 a.m., on return to Teterboro. 

    Ambulances took the surgical team from the airport to Newark, where the organs were removed from the donor in an operating room. Every minute counts, as organs remain healthy only for a short period of time after being removed.

    Mincer said the success of this “multi-layered event” left a positive impression with the Organ Procurement Organization. The OPO is charged by the federal government to be responsible for recovering organs from deceased donors for transplantation. The organization “will depend on the airport and our medical community for success in future missions,” Mincer said.

    The Canandaigua Airport in the town of Canandaigua dates back to a grass strip in the 1940s. Developments in recent decades included a major airport expansion in 2013. The project produced a longer, wider runway making it possible to accommodate additional jet traffic and larger aircrafts used during life-saving missions.

    Owned by the Ontario County Industrial Development Agency, the airport is home base for a variety of general aviation aircraft and houses related organizations and businesses including Mercy Flight Central, Penn Yan Flying Club, and Canandaigua Air Center LLC. The airport caters to corporate and recreational flying, is used for military operations, and has a full-service maintenance shop.

    For the airport’s role in this recent life-saving mission, Mincer commended Mercy Flight Aviation Services, which provided a seamless transition between each ground transportation and flight. 

    Mercy Flight’s Brady was glad to be there. “It’s a cool job to have for moments like this,” Brady said.

    Desperate need for organs

    Organ transplant procedures in the United States were cut in half by the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbating the worldwide shortage of organs and the need for transplants, according to a USA Today report.

    By early April, the U.S. saw a 50% decline in deceased donor transplants from the month before, according to an analysis by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Paris Transplant Group.  

    “Our findings point to the far-reaching and severe ripple effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on health care, including lifesaving organ transplants,” said study co-author Dr. Peter Reese, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Penn.

    The analysis, published in The Lancet, attributed the overall decline to a steep reduction in kidney transplants, but it also reported a substantial drop in heart, lung and liver transplants.

    Making matters worse, organs are usually transported via commercial aircraft but the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced the number of flights available.

    As of September 2020, 109,000 people were on the national transplant waiting list. Each day, 17 people die waiting for an organ transplant.

    How can you be a donor?

    The New York State Donate Life Registry is a database of people who have signed up to donate their organs, eyes and/or tissues after their death. This database is kept confidential.

    There are many ways to sign up. Those include with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles when applying for or renewing a learner permit, driver’s license or non-driver ID. When you enroll at the DMV, a heart and the words “Organ Donor” appear on these documents.

    Learn more at https://donatelife.ny.gov/.