The University of Michigan announced Thursday that ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen won the Livingston Award for local reporting. The awards, which honor journalists under the age of 35, recognized her investigation on how the heart transplant team at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center kept a vegetative patient on life support to boost its lagging survival rate.
Co-published with New Jersey Advance Media and WNYC, Chen’s investigation found that Newark Beth Israel’s transplant team was determined to treat the patient, Darryl Young, aggressively without adequately consulting his family or offering them the option of palliative care, which focuses on comfort. Young suffered brain damage during his heart transplant operation, and the medical team believed he would never wake up again, Chen’s reporting found. Yet the transplant director told staff to keep Young alive and avoid conversations with his family about his prognosis or treatment options because of worries about the program’s survival rate, the proportion of people undergoing transplants who are still alive a year after their operations.
Federal regulators focused on this statistic to evaluate — and sometimes penalize — transplant programs, giving hospitals across the country a reputational and financial incentive to game it. Newark Beth Israel’s one-year survival rate for heart transplants had dipped, and if Young were to die too soon, the program’s standing and even its own survival might be in jeopardy.
Audio recordings that Chen obtained included Dr. Mark Zucker, the program director, describing the failure to offer Young’s family other treatment options, like palliative care, as “very unethical” but justifying it as essential “for the global good of the future transplant recipients.”
Chen followed up by revealing that the transplant team had disregarded the family’s wishes for another brain-damaged patient, Andrey Jurtschenko. Knowing that he never wanted to be a burden on them, his children sought a do not resuscitate order, which could potentially have lowered the hospital’s survival rate. The medical team deflected the request.
The transplant team’s elevation of statistics over empathy caused a furor, in New Jersey and beyond. In response to Chen’s article about Darryl Young’s plight, multiple federal and state regulators started investigations, including the FBI, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the New Jersey Department of Health and the state’s Board of Medical Examiners. The hospital also hired independent consultants to conduct an internal review and placed Zucker on administrative leave.
Following its investigation, CMS found that Newark Beth Israel placed patients in “immediate jeopardy” by repeatedly failing to implement corrective measures after botched surgeries, and by violating the rights of patients and their families after not obtaining informed consent and inquiring about advance directives. It required the hospital to submit a plan of correction, which Newark Beth Israel has now completed.
Learn about all of this year's Livingston Awards winners here.