Widow seeks "truth" amid patient deaths at renowned heart transplant program

Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center in Houston has temporarily closed its world-renowned heart transplant program following an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica that revealed the departure of several top doctors and an unusual number of patient deaths in recent years.

"You know, everybody said it was the best, the best place to go," Judy Kveton told CBS News' Mark Strassmann. Her husband, David, had one last chance at life: a heart transplant at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center. She claims the surgeon told her the operation in 2017 went well, but the 64-year-old needed six more surgeries over the next week and never woke up. She said that was before more bad news.

"He said, 'But you know we're going to have to take this heart out and put an artificial heart in'… And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Well this heart just isn't acting right,'" Judy recalled.

Essentially, he was back to square one. That night, David had a stroke. His wife says she waited half a day before a neurologist would talk to her. 

"He confirmed he was brain dead. And we turned the machines off," Judy said. 

0612-ctm-txhearttransplant-strassman2.jpg

Judy Kveton

CBS News

The surgeon was Dr. Jeffrey Morgan, the program's surgical director. He didn't respond to CBS News' request for comment, but he defended himself to Pro Publica, saying he did tell the Kveton family that David was "critically ill." Morgan was hired in 2016 to fix the program. St. Luke's one-year survival rate in the year-and-a-half prior was 84.2 percent, below the national average of more than ninety percent. The hospital made changes and said its survival rate jumped to about 94 percent by 2017 before plummeting again this year.

Dr. Tariq Ahmad is an assistant professor of cardiology at the Yale School of Medicine. He explained how to evaluate heart transplant programs.

 "Heart transplantion is a very high stakes game," Ahmad said. "Transplant programs have a one-year survival of more than 90 percent. There may be slight variations around this, but that should be the outcomes of a transplant program."

St. Luke's performed nine heart transplants in 2018 and, according to CEO Doug Lawson, they've had three deaths so far.

"So that's not an acceptable percentage to you?" Strassmann asked. "Not at all," Lawson replied.

He suspended the program on June 1 for a two-week review after two transplant patients died in May. 

"We're gonna look at the total body of work. We're gonna look at the individual members of the team," Lawson said. "The question that we always ask ourselves is what could we do better?"

strassmann-heart-transplant-ceo-intv-tx-rem63-frame-81381.jpg

Doug Lawson

CBS News

But some St. Luke's doctors were so outraged, they left, including Deborah Meyers, the former medical director of the St. Luke's Heart Failure Program. In a scathing letter to the hospital president, Meyers called the program a "debacle" and blamed self-inflicted wounds: "greed, careerism, corporate takeovers, appalling administrative oversight and failure of leadership." Lawson called her letter "disappointing." 

"We have an equal number of professionals who are very committed to this program and feel very strongly that we're providing great care," Lawson said.

Judy Kveton got an anonymous letter two months after her husband died, she believes from someone inside St. Luke's. It blamed administrators and chronic program issues for her husband's death.

"People deserve the truth. They need the truth. Yes, it's hard to cope with the truth but that's better than finding out everything was a lie," Judy said.

Privacy laws prevent the hospital from discussing specifics of the Kveton case but Lawson says transparency is another focus of the ongoing review. To the idea that people are walking away from his hospital feeling like they hadn't been told the truth, Lawson replied, "Communicating transparently with our patients is a core value for us. Anything less than that is not acceptable."

The hospital's review of the transplant program should be released late Thursday. Recommendations could range from making adjustments and restarting the program to a major overhaul that continues its suspension. Either way, Judy Kveton said, "I just want the deaths to stop."

If you are you an employee, patient or a family member of a patient at St. Luke's Medical Center CBS News would like to hear about your experience. Please email FeitelR@cbsnews.com