By Christie Duffy
Janice McNamara spent two years bound to an oxygen machine, faced with a life-threatening lung disease, waiting for the call that would save her life. She needed a lung transplant.
“I mean two years, as I said, at one point I kept telling my friends and my family, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna make it.’ You know it got to that point,” McNamara of Rahway said.
Janice got the transplant surgery she needed, last year at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. She was one of the last people to undergo the procedure before the center’s transplant program — the only one in the state — stopped performing them.
Patients are now forced to travel out-of-state for the time-sensitive surgery. A transplant recipient must be able to get to the hospital within two hours of receiving the call.
“I don’t know how, to be honest, how New Jersey-ites are gonna do it,” McNamara said.
Newark Beth Israel has said staffing vacancies have made it impossible to continue doing lung transplants. The surgeon and director of the transplant program left the hospital around the same time last year, not long after Janice’s surgery.
“I just started seeing people disappearing. I heard through the grape vine that Dr. Studer, who is the director, left. Right after my surgery, my surgeon left. Then, one of the coordinators is no longer there. You know, it just started thinning out,” said McNamara.
A hospital spokesperson declined to comment on the issue but told NJTV News an announcement is coming.
Newark Beth Israel has halted its transplant program before, during previous staffing turnovers. In 2008, the then-surgical director of the program told the Star-Ledger: “New Jersey needs a lung transplant program. It’s the tenth most populated state in the country and it didn’t have one.”
For now, the two closest lung transplant programs for New Jersey residents are at New York Presbyterian and at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia.
A spokesperson for New York Presbyterian Hospital says “[the lung center] has seen a slight increase in volume since last fall, however [they] cannot link it directly to the closing of the program in Newark.”
The Director of UPenn’s transplant program says they’ve “certainly seen an impact.”
Oversight of transplant programs is done on the federal level. Joel Newman is with the organization responsible for maintaining the national ranking list of patients in need of a transplant. He says geography is just one of the factors determining a person’s spot on the waiting list.
“It’s really a balance of how well a person matches how close they are to the donor and some combination of their medical urgency and their survival chance,” Newman said.
Post-transplant patients are still being treated at Newark Beth Israel. Nationwide, 1,700 people are still waiting for a life-saving lung transplant. Forty-two of them are in New Jersey.