Girl in need of lung highlights transplant rules' favoritism

Kendall Sumners, 11, has cystic fibrosis. She had been waiting for a lung and liver transplant since January 2013.
CBS News

(CBS News) The president's health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, wants a review of federal rules to make more children eligible for organ transplants. Sebelius had declined to get involved in the case of a 10-year-old girl who was in desperate need of a lung transplant. On Wednesday, a federal judge intervened so the girl could be put on the adult waiting list.

Last night, Sarah Murnaghan cheered from her hospital bed. The court ruling means her odds of receiving a life-saving lung transplant have increased.

There are 31 children under the age of 11 waiting for a lung transplant.

Kendall Sumners has cystic fibrosis. Since January, the 11-year-old has been on the pediatric waiting list for both a lung and a liver transplant.

Kendall Sumners, 11, has cystic fibrosis. She had been waiting for a lung and liver transplant since January 2013. CBS News

Her mother Kelli has always been optimistic. "We're tethered to a beeper," she said. "Everyday we believe the call is coming, and it will come, it will come on time, and it will come in the order where it's supposed to come."

But for kids, those calls are rare because the organ transplant rules favor adults. Patients 12 and over are prioritized by the severity of illness and the odds of success. Kids under 12 can only receive an adult organ after it has been offered to suitable adult candidates.

Last year, there were just 20 lung donors under the age of 12. That's out of more than 1,700 total donors.

Dr. George Mallory is Kendall's doctor at Texas Children's Hospital. "Most of the younger kids have to get at the end of the line after every single adult patient," he said, "so they are at some disadvantage."

Mallory said most adult lungs are too large to transplant into kids. Lung transplant surgeon Dr. Joshua Sonett of New York Presbyterian Columbia has studied the shortage.

"The children should be able to receive adult lungs on a non-biased scale," he said. "In other words, if they're sicker than an adult, they should get a lung."

Kendall's chances may improve next week when she turns 12 years old. That means she will be listed on both the pediatric and adult waiting lists.

There is a national shortage of donor organs. Right now, more than 40 percent of patients who need a lung had been waiting more than a year. On Thursday afternoon, a federal judge ordered that a second child be put on the adult donor list.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook