Boston hospital denies heart transplant to man who hasn't gotten COVID-19 vaccine

The hospital said a vaccine is just one of many criteria for a new heart.

January 26, 2022, 6:06 PM

The family of a Boston man is speaking out after they say their 31-year-old son was struck from a waitlist for a heart transplant because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

DJ Ferguson, who was diagnosed with arrhythmia four years ago, was admitted to Brigham and Women's Hospital after suffering heart failure this winter, his parents told ABC News. But after reviewing Ferguson's medical history, which showed he had not received a coronavirus shot, hospital staff told Ferguson that his vaccination status made him ineligible for a new heart, according to his parents.

Tracey and David Ferguson insisted their son does not oppose vaccines; he just worries the COVID-19 shot would complicate his heart condition, they said.

"He's not an anti-vaxxer. He has all of his vaccines, and he's an informed patient who is concerned because of his current cardiac crisis," Tracey Ferguson said.

However, doctors say the risk of severe illness and inflammation of the heart from contracting COVID-19 is much more likely than the low risk of heart inflammation from the vaccine, which is usually temporary.

A pedestrian walks past the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, March 12, 2020.
Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

National transplant associations recommend the COVID-19 vaccines before transplants, as do many medical centers, because after a transplant, the patient’s immune system can become compromised from medications necessary to keep the organ and the patient alive, making the individual at risk for severe illness and death if they become infected with COVID-19.

The coronavirus vaccine is just one of several vaccinations required for patients who receive a transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a spokesperson at the facility told ABC News. These requirements "create both the best chance for a successful operation and optimize the patient's survival after transplantation, given that their immune system is dramatically suppressed," spokesperson Serena Bronda wrote in an email.

Since only about half of people waiting for an organ transplant will receive one, according to the hospital, doctors try to ensure that the organs go to people with the best chance of survival after the operation.

While the hospital could not comment on Ferguson's case, citing HIPAA privacy law, Bronda said that all patients seeking transplants undergo a "comprehensive evaluation" to determine if they are eligible for the operation.

Transplant seekers are also screened for certain "lifestyle behaviors" that might disqualify them, such as substance use and active smoking, she added.

Evaluating patients seeking organ transplants is a common practice in most hospitals -- and a necessary one, experts told ABC News, as there are not enough organs for everyone who needs one.

"You're trying to get the most life saved with a very, very scarce resource," Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, said. "This is not about discrimination."

Jennifer Miller, a bioethicist at Yale, told ABC News that hospitals must "allocate prudently" when it comes to organ transplants. "If you end up giving a heart to somebody who then dies, not only that person died, another person didn't get that heart," she said.

People line up to get tested for COVID-19 at Anna M. Cole Community Center in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Dec. 21, 2021.
Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images, FILE

On Tuesday, DJ Ferguson was in open-heart surgery to receive a mechanical heart pump, called a left ventricular assist device, which should keep him alive for up to five years, according to his parents, who worry about the toll the device will have on their son's quality of life.

"For the foreseeable future, he won't be able to shower, he won't be able to swim. He won't be able to have a life," David Ferguson said.

Tracey Ferguson said it was "devastating" when she learned that her son was not eligible to receive a new heart.