Cheney's heart: Should age be a factor in organ transplants?

Organ transplant
Consultant Surgeon Andrew Ready and his team conduct a live donor kidney transplant at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Former Vice President Dick Cheney received a heart transplant last weekend. The 71-year-old had spent 20 months on the organ donation waiting list - a time period that some call short, and some call average.

But the bigger question raised by Cheney's transplant was whether his age should have been taken into account when he received the heart -- should younger patients on the list be first in line?

"I don't believe in having cut offs in medicine," said transplant surgeon Richard Freeman. "There's no black and white, there are some 35-year-olds who are terrible candidates [for organ transplants] and some 70-year-olds who are great candidates... You can't say absolutely you'll never do a transplant on a person at X age."

Freeman, chair of the surgery department at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, will join The Daily Circuit Friday to talk about the controversial world of organ donation.

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"I don't buy the argument about how many years you're likely to live being the most important factor in your health care," he said. "Who are we to say that those 5 or 10 years a 70-year-old might gain are less valuable than the 30 years a 30-year-old might gain?"

Jeffrey Kahn, direct deputy for policy and administration at the Johns Hopkins Institute of Bioethics, will also join the discussion. He said our organ donation system in the United States allows people to be on lists in multiple states if they are able to get themselves to the location of the organ. Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs flew from California to Tennessee for his liver transplant. Do people with more money and connections get special treatment?

"I don't know how many states Jobs was listed in for organ donation waiting lists, but I bet money it wasn't just in Tennessee and California," Kahn said. "With Cheney it's presumed that he was listed in many places. He got the heart in the Washington metro area and I presume that was where he was planning to have the surgery done if possible but who knows...It would be really bad if we found out he got special treatment in any way. It could really hurt the organ donation community."