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Erie County Medical Center has temporarily suspended kidney transplants from living donors following the death of a donor six months after a successful transplant.

The program is under review, and transplants may resume in about six weeks. The hospital notified potential donors and their recipients of the decision.

Transplants from deceased donors have not been affected.

The move was prompted by the death of a donor who had provided a kidney to a family member in spring 2013, then died from an overdose of illegal drugs six months later, according to sources with knowledge about the incident.

After a required inspection by the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government, ECMC voluntarily suspended transplants from living donors while an internal hospital review of the program takes place.

Hospital officials hope to restart living donor transplants in July after a follow-up meeting with UNOS. The meeting is important for ECMC because UNOS has the authority to place transplant programs on probation if the organization finds a problem that, if left uncorrected, poses a risk to the health of transplant patients or living donors.

The suspension, assuming it lasts six weeks, affects two transplant procedures that were scheduled for June, a source said.

Letters about the suspension went to all ECMC’s potential donors and recipients. Currently, ECMC has 74 potential living donors and 308 potential organ recipients.

ECMC told the patients and donors they have a choice: wait for reactivation of living donor transplants, undergo a transplant with an organ from a deceased donor or transfer to another transplant program.

“ECMC proactively decided to temporarily suspend living donor recoveries. The ECMC transplant program otherwise continues unaffected, and ECMC fully expects that the living donor program will be reinstated by mid-July 2014. In the meantime, the transplant program will fully support and guide any potential living organ donor and recipient in the alternatives available to them,” said Thomas Quatroche Jr., senior vice president of marketing and planning.

The Northeast Kidney Foundation, which has an office in Buffalo, has started receiving calls from patients about the suspension, said Barbara Breckenridge, community relations director.

The affected patients are those who have a living donor ready to donate an organ, she said.

“It’s not a good thing, and some people are upset. But we’re telling both patients and donors to be patient. ECMC, in our experience, has operated an excellent program, and we have faith that it can and will be back to being what it was,” Breckenridge said.

She praised the medical center for what she described as proactive steps to alert patients and review what happened.

The Regional Center of Excellence in Transplantation and Kidney Care opened in 2011. It is a $27 million project that combined competing transplant programs at ECMC and Kaleida Health’s Buffalo General Medical Center.

The transplant center has experienced survival rates for recipients close to or better than national averages. Through 2012, the survival rate for transplant recipients from both living and deceased donors was 100 percent one month after transplant, 98.4 percent after one year and 89.9 percent after three years.

The deaths that occurred during that period were associated with transplants from deceased donors. The survival rate was 100 percent during the same periods for recipients of the 21 organs from living donors.

The risk of death resulting from kidney donation is low. Nationally, people who donate a kidney appear to live as long as people with two healthy kidneys, although the risk of death is somewhat higher in the first few months after the procedure, studies show. The risk of having a life-threatening problem with donating a kidney is 1 in 3,000, according to the National Kidney Registry.

Kidneys clean the body’s blood of wastes. A kidney transplant is an operation for people with kidney failure. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2011, 113,136 patients in the United States started treatment for kidney failure, with diabetes and hypertension listed as the leading causes.

email: hdavis@buffnews.com