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Leader of Newark Beth Israel’s Troubled Heart Transplant Program Departs

Dr. Mark Zucker was put on administrative leave after ProPublica showed he told staff to keep a heart transplant patient on life support because of concerns about survival stats. Now Newark Beth Israel will seek a new leader for the program.

Carlo Giambarresi, special to ProPublica

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Dr. Mark Zucker, director of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s heart transplant center, is departing after a yearlong administrative leave, the New Jersey hospital said Friday.

“Dr. Zucker and the leadership of NBIMC and RWJBarnabas Health have mutually agreed that this is an appropriate time for a formal leadership transition in the Medical Center’s transplant program,” Newark Beth Israel said in a statement. RWJBarnabas Health is the parent health system of the hospital.

Zucker went on administrative leave last year following an Oct. 3, 2019, report by ProPublica that revealed he instructed his staff to keep a patient named Darryl Young on life support and not to discuss options such as hospice care with his family until the one-year anniversary of his surgery. Young suffered brain damage during heart transplant surgery in September 2018 and never woke up.

According to current and former employees, as well as audio recordings of transplant team meetings, Zucker was concerned about the program’s one-year survival rate — the proportion of people undergoing transplants who are still alive a year after their operations. Newark Beth Israel’s one-year rate for heart transplants had dipped below the national average, and Zucker was concerned that the program might attract scrutiny from federal regulators.

Spurred by ProPublica’s articles, a subsequent investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in December 2019 found that the transplant program placed patients in “immediate jeopardy,” the regulator’s most serious level of violation.

A photo of Darryl Young just before his heart transplant surgery at Newark Beth Israel on Sept. 21, 2018. (Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica)

CMS investigators uncovered a series of incidents in which the hospital identified areas for improvement following botched surgeries but didn’t carry out its own recommendations, allowing “subsequent adverse events to occur.” The investigators required corrective measures, which the hospital has carried out.

Newark Beth Israel also hired outside counsel to conduct its own investigation.

“Based on the available evidence, the ongoing investigation by outside counsel — with the assistance of expert transplant consultants including physicians — has determined that Dr. Zucker and the transplant team’s post-transplant care of the patient was not affected or compromised by concerns about survival rates or concerns about the interests of the program; was not unethical; and did not deviate from the standard of care expected of medical professionals,” the hospital said in its statement.

In response to a request for comment, Zucker's lawyer sent a press release, which includes the following statement from Zucker: "Newark Beth Israel Medical Center has always had a reputation for providing high quality care, state-of-the-art care and I am truly proud to have worked there for more than three decades, served the community with honor, and contributed substantially to that reputation.”

In the past year, two other cardiologists have left the hospital to work at other programs. Newark Beth Israel said it will now start a search for a new director for its heart transplant program.

Update, Oct. 30, 2020: This story was updated with a statement from Dr. Mark Zucker that was contained in a press release sent by his lawyer.

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