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UK Healthcare Reviewing Pediatric Heart Surgeries, Sending Patients to Other Hospitals

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky Children’s Hospital treats some of the sickest and smallest patients from across central and eastern Kentucky. But for the past several weeks, pediatric heart surgeries have been referred to other hospitals. As Brenna Angel reports, UK Healthcare is reviewing its program, but the reasons why are unclear.

Like a lot of kids, Kerrington Johnson is looking forward to Christmas and she made a wish list for Santa.

“Cinderella toys and Dora toys,” says Kerrington, who turns four years old in January.

When she was born, doctors diagnosed Kerrington with a heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot. It was caused by the genetic disorder DiGeorge Syndrome, which is also why she has delayed speech development.

“We try to lead a normal lifestyle but it’s not like everybody else’s,” says Kerrington's mom, Christy Johnson.

Congenital heart disease is the most common type of birth defect, affecting about 40,000 children in the U.S. each year.

“It was pretty rough. She was sick a lot. We couldn’t leave the house because she had immune deficiency. Just a lot of respiratory issues.”

Kerrington underwent surgery at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in 2009, and the Johnson family quickly saw the need for a local support group. They established Kerrington’s Heart, Inc. as a non-profit organization to connect with and assist other parents affected by heart defects. This week Christy has been gathering up clothes and toys to deliver as Christmas presents for Kentucky families who have been receiving care out of state.

“They were not prepared to not be able to give their other children the Christmas that they probably wanted to. So we stepped in and fulfilled that need.”

Far From Home

One of those parents in need is Lexington mother Tabitha Rainey. Her son Waylon was born in September with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

“A normal heart has four chambers. One of Waylon’s did not grow right so he only had three.”

University of Kentucky surgeon Dr. Mark Plunkett and his assistant Dr. Deborah Kozik operated on Waylon seven days after he was born. Tabitha was later told that Dr. Plunkett was taking a leave of absence.

“My main question was if the other surgeon felt that she could do the best job that she could, and I was reassured. Then months went past and they lost another patient, who was a dear friend of mine, and it was pretty heavy in the unit at the time. Then soon after I guess they decided to stop doing the surgeries and review the entire program.”

With only a few days to pick a new hospital, the Raineys chose Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Pediatric heart patients are also being sent to other hospitals such as Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville.

“It’s been pretty hush hush. They’ve not given big answers on it,” says Tabitha Rainey.

Program Under Review

UK Healthcare officials have not identified what prompted the review, but they say it is limited to the pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program, not any other pediatric areas or the adult heart program.

“We’re looking at what can we do best and how do we best deliver the services and the care that kids need,” said Dr. Carmel Wallace, Chair of UK's Department of Pediatrics.

UK’s head of surgery, the chief medical officer, and Dr. Michael Karpf, the Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, all would not comment for this story.  Dr. Mark Plunkett, the surgeon at the center of the review, also declined to be interviewed.

Dr. Mark Plunkett, Chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UK.

Hired by UK in 2007, Dr.Plunkett has an impressive background of clinical training and research. The 52-year-old completed fellowships at Duke University and UCLA and has published dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals.

He was appointed a slew of academic, clinical, and administrative positions, including Associate Professor of Surgery, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Director of the Pediatric and Congenital Heart Program, and Surgical Director of the Gill Heart Institute. Dr. Plunkett remains on staff at UK with a $700,000 annual salary.

UK denied an open records request for the date of his most recent surgery and his patient mortality rate, citing HIPAA regulations. Records show that the number of children Dr. Plunkett operated on this year is down around 43 percent from two years ago.

“I was a not aware of that and that was never announced at the Board of Trustees meeting,” said Trustee Dr. Charles Sachatello, who sits on the board's healthcare committee.

A surgeon himself, Dr. Sachatello thinks UK should consolidate its pediatric heart program with the University of Louisville because of the high operational costs.  

Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, Tabitha Rainey says her son has improved dramatically and they may get to come home soon. When Waylon needs future surgeries, they will make the trip back to Michigan.

UK Healthcare has lost the trust of the Rainey family, but Christy Johnson wants to see the pediatric cardiothoracic program continue. She thinks Kentucky Children’s Hospital can be at the same level as world-renowned facilities. 

“I have high hopes. And I believe that with the proper decisions and management that we can accomplish that.”

Last week the Johnsons learned that Kerrington will need to undergo another surgery in the spring. Christy says she will be getting feedback from moms in her support group about which hospitals to consider. 

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.