TNT’s “Leverage” highlights need for donors  |  September 23, 2011

Courtesy of Lifeline of Ohio:

TNT’s “Leverage” is one of the few shows my husband and I watch together. The series is about a group of former thieves, hackers and the like who left their sordid pasts behind and now work for the greater good.

I was excited to settle into the couch recently to catch up on a few episodes on our DVR. When we started watching the episode from Aug. 21 I immediately knew I was going to have to take notes.

Within a few minutes of the opening scene in an airport, we see a nervous woman with a cooler. It was clear to me this was going to be about organ donation (as some organs are transported in coolers). I didn’t want a show I loved to be ruined by a bad storyline about donation. “No,” I whined to my husband. “I’m not ready for this.”

I think my apprehension was understandable. As a donation professional, I have seen many TV shows and movies portray donation incorrectly and perpetuate myths. While “Leverage” took some liberties for the sake of the storyline, one message was abundantly clear: the need for organ donors is real.

The episode, called “The Cross My Heart Job,” began in the Cincinnati airport. The “Leverage” crew was passing through on the way home from another job when Nate Ford (the leader of the group) noticed something awry with a woman carrying a cooler. He observed a carefully-choreographed swap of her cooler for another.

Nate confronts the woman, who we learn is a transplant nurse, and asks her what is going on. The woman is devastated as she explains that she was bringing a heart back from Detroit for Joshua, a 15-year-old boy who needs a transplant, when she was told she had to give it up. The “bad guys” who demanded the heart were holding her daughter hostage in exchange for the heart.

She explains that she didn’t feel like she had a choice in the matter, even though the young boy probably wouldn’t make it long enough for another heart to become available. The “Leverage” team is then faced with their challenge: find the heart and get it to the young boy immediately.

Before we move on, I want to clarify a few items. While most viewers understand the need for suspended disbelief while enjoying shows like this, inaccuracies about organ donation can lead to misconceptions and prevent people from registering as donors. I want to make it clear that it would be nearly impossible for someone to steal a heart.

  • A heart for transplant would be transported on a charter jet (not through a commercial airline) to make it from donor to recipient as quickly as possible. Since a heart is only viable for 4-6 hours after recovery, the team would go straight from the jet to the ambulance to the hospital. It is a tightly orchestrated process.
  • An organ will always travel with two or more people so the likelihood of a transplant nurse being isolated with a heart is very slim.
  • There also isn’t an explanation of how the “bad guys” determined that a heart (the same blood and tissue type they need) became available and was travelling from Detroit to Cincinnati. Donation is confidential and access to donor information is only available to the teams recovering those organs.

Back to the story! 15-year-old Joshua’s life is at stake and everyone understands the gravity of the situation. Joshua’s family waits anxiously at the hospital, knowing that a heart is on its way to give him a second chance at life.

In each episode, the “Leverage” team steals something. In this case, they decide they need to steal the National Transplant Waiting List to determine who is trying to steal the heart. When this was proposed, the transplant nurse wonders if they can accomplish that and Hardison, the hacker, says “Yea, if you have a decent enough set-up.”

Now, as much as I want the “Leverage” team to find the heart and get it back to the transplant center, it is incredibly unlikely that they could access the information that they need.

The National Transplant Waiting List is a computer system and is maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). This system is very secure and has entire team of people dedicated to its protection. UNOS even hires their own hackers to test the system and ensure that patient information remains confidential.

So, the team moves forward to help the young boy whose life hangs in the balance. Sophie, the grifter, calls the National Transplant Registry (which doesn’t exist), poses as staff member at the transplant center and requests an email copy of the donor history file. (In reality, this information is strictly guarded, so it wouldn’t be emailed to just anyone claiming to represent a transplant center. Identities of all personnel are verified and information is encrypted and password protected. Personal medical information is not just emailed.)

When the team receives the donor information, they run it against the more than three thousand people waiting for heart transplants. They make it clear the person has to be a genetic match, with similar height and weight as the donor, and live within 4-6 hours of the donor, which is true. They narrow it down to a small list and Nate picks out Dean Chesney, the CEO of a defense contracting company in Chicago. Nate recognizes him as another “bad guy” and a former target of the “Leverage” team.

Let me interject again here! By now (probably two hours or more into the process) the rest of the surgical staff would be wondering where the heart is. Typically, during an organ delivery, the recovery team checks in with the surgical team every 15 minutes or so to give updates on progress to the destination. An organ couldn’t go “missing” this long without more parties becoming involved. And, again, the organ is always in the hands of a transplant team member.

The “Leverage” team begins to close in on the heart. They use their skills to take over the control tower, ground a flight, fake a tornado warning and prevent the “bad guys” from escaping. They track down Chesney’s men and trick them into thinking they still have the heart, which is safely in the hands of the “Leverage” team. Quite impressive!

While the team is at work, Nate calls Dean Chesney to let him know the heart he stole won’t be coming. Dean, who appears to be in his 70s, tells Nate he’s too old to make it to the top of the list. While viability of an organ post-transplant is always considered, the main consideration for receiving a transplant is severity of illness. It is still possible that Dean could receive a transplant, though, as evidenced by this episode, his wealth and status will never give him an edge.

Dean’s attempt to steal an organ is a huge criminal offense, and if anything like this occurred in real life, it would have major repercussions. Unfortunately, Nate can’t report what Dean has done without exposing himself as a former thief.

In the end, Joshua has a successful heart transplant. Viewers definitely understand the urgency of the need for donors and the desperation felt by those who are waiting for the “Gift of Life.” My hope is that viewers will turn that feeling into action, and register as organ and tissue donors.

At one point during the show, Nate says that Joshua “is waiting for a heart that may never come.” That’s the case right now for 112,223 people in the U.S. waiting on a life-saving organ transplant. While this story ended happily, the truth is that 18 men, women and children die every day in the U.S. before a transplant becomes available.

Even though this “Leverage” episode was far-fetched, they focused on organs as precious, life-saving gifts, which I really appreciate. I will definitely remain a fan of the show!

– Rachel Lewis, media relations/community outreach coordination

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