Transplant patients in Indiana have an unusual advantage. Of the 58 organ procurement organizations (OPOs) in the U.S., the Indiana Donor Network is the only one that operates an aircraft. The nonprofit organization captured an Indiana Innovation Award this month for its TxJet, which is on-call 24/7, ready to fly coast to coast at a moment’s notice to recover an organ, eliminating two common transplant hurdles: time and distance. The Indiana Donor Network says the jet means less “cold time” for organs and that geographic distance won’t be a factor in saving a life.

“Outcomes are better the faster you take that organ and transplant it into someone else,” says Indiana Donor Network Chief Operating Officer Steve Johnson. “The longer it’s outside that environment, the worse the outcomes are.”

Before launching the TxJet in 2014, the network, like most OPOs throughout the U.S., relied on charter airline companies, but the organization grew frustrated with the three-hour wait time often required before takeoff.  

“[Organ transplantation] is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When somebody calls, we need to go. We saw an opportunity; we thought we could do it in a way that was better, quicker and was going to save lives,” says Johnson. “To get a nonprofit to make an investment in an aviation program, if you think about it—that’s a pretty big deal.”

In addition to critical time-savings, the network says having its own jet saves money, because it no longer pays outside charter companies for their services. The impact of having a jet dedicated to an organ transplant team is so significant, it begs the question of why more OPOs don’t have aircrafts. Johnson says most find it intimidating, because it’s outside of OPOs’ expertise.

But when Johnson joined the network in 2014, he brought with him 20 years of medical and air transport experience. As a pilot and paramedic in New Mexico, he started an air ambulance company for underserved areas, followed by a leadership role at the second-largest air medical transport provider in the nation. Before joining the Indiana Donor Network, he led Indiana University Health’s Lifeline operation, which operates medical helicopters. That experience, both in the clinic and in the sky, plus a supportive leadership team, paved the way for TxJet.

“Getting into aviation isn’t something that [an OPO] should take lightly; you’re basically running an airline,” says Johnson. “People are careful about that, and OPOs don’t necessarily have that expertise and would rather rely on somebody else who does.”

Many OPOs in the Midwest have come to rely on TxJet’s expertise; Johnson says the network has become “the go-to” for organ aviation needs throughout the country, including partners in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, Kentucky, the Mayo Clinic and several other organizations.

“We’re specialized. We understand the critical nature of making sure [the organ] gets there in a timely fashion,” says Johnson. “When our surgical team walks out after they’ve done the operation, and we’re getting ready to take the organ where it’s needed, we’ve called in advance, our guys are out there with the door open, engine running and flight plan already done. [The team] gets on the aircraft, the door closes, and we’re gone.”

Demand has grown so much that the network added a second plane, ensuring one is always available when needed; about 625 organs have been delivered since TxJet’s launch in 2014. The nonprofit charges its partners only the cost of operation, eliminating the markup of charter companies. Johnson says the network is open to adding a third plane if volume produces a need for it.

“If we can provide a service that’s going to save even one life and make an impact on organ donation, I think we should do it,” says Johnson. “Transplants are a miracle. It reconnects your appreciation for good people and humanity.”

TxJet flies coast to coast to recover organs, underscoring the team’s belief that logistics should never stand in the way of saving lives. 

Johnson says TxJet pilots “truly believe in the mission.”

Johnson says the network uses the jet anytime it will reduce the “cold time” for an organ.

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