The death Saturday of a Park City man refused eligibility for a lung transplant at the University of Utah after doctors found a trace of marijuana in his system is sparking debate on hospital policies.
A leading national expert on transplantation said Monday that with the changing U.S. climate surrounding medical and recreational marijuana, transplant centers need to re-evaluate "and try to come to some reasonable judgments on the risk of marijuana use and the benefits of transplantations."
Nearly half the U.S. states now make some form of marijuana use legal.
"Social and legal policy across the country is changing quickly, and I think transplantation and medicine in general need to keep up with what is going on and make appropriate decisions," said David Klassen, chief medical officer at United Network of Organ Sharing, a Virginia-based group that manages several national transplant waiting lists.
Riley Hancey, 20, died around 4 p.m. Saturday surrounded by his father, mother and two aunts at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, after receiving a double lung transplant there March 29.
"This death is unbelievable," his father, Mark Hancey, said Sunday. "If you could talk about angels, [the Penn] medical staff, they are a group of angels. From the physicians down, I just couldn't believe it."
The younger Hancey, an avid skier and cycling enthusiast, was admitted to the U. Hospital in Salt Lake City on Dec. 2 after suffering a severe bout of pneumonia last Thanksgiving. He was put on life support two weeks later, remained on a lung machine for about a month and was recommended for a transplant when it became apparent that his lungs would not heal with other forms of treatment.
But Hancey was denied transplant eligibility at the U. after routine tests found traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana. Mark Hancey said his son smoked it with his friends Thanksgiving after a year of being drug-free.
In a statement after the U. rejected Hancey, U. officials said they could not comment on his individual case, but spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said under the hospital's transplant policy, "We do not transplant organs in patients with active alcohol, tobacco or illicit drug use or dependencies until these issues are addressed, as these substances are contraindicated for a transplant."
Patients remain ineligible at least until undergoing a treatment or cessation program, Wilets added. The policy is designed, she said, to give patients a higher chance of surviving surgery and recovery.
Father Mark Hancey said the family continues to struggle over the U.'s decision and the impact it had on Riley's final months.
"If I can come home and have a few beers, I can probably get a transplant," he told The Tribune. "But if I came home and took one hit of marijuana, I can't have one. I just don't understand it. All I know is we need a different standard."
The U. issued a statement of condolences Monday over Hancey's death, but officials continued to decline to answer questions arising from his treatment, out of what they said was respect for the patient's privacy.
"This case has touched everyone who was involved in it, and we would like to express our sincere condolences to the Hancey family," the statement said. "We were extremely saddened to learn of Riley's passing, and we send our deepest sympathies to his family and friends during this difficult time."
After Riley Hancey was denied by the U., Mark Hancey said the family searched for hospitals across the country for nearly two months. Penn added him to its transplant list and moved him to Philadelphia on March 11, where he waited 18 days in ICU for matching donor lungs.
Riley's older brother, Zachary Hancey, posted a statement from the family on his personal Facebook page late Sunday, thanking medical staffs at Penn and the U. for their care. He also he thanked the family of the donor whose lungs Riley received in his transplant.
"It has been a long battle to save Riley's life," his post read. "We know that in our hearts we gave him every opportunity to survive. He will live in our hearts forever. He is now free to climb every mountain and run every river and will continue to do so with his family in spirit."
The Hancey family is meeting Monday evening to discuss arrangements for a celebration of Riley's life, his father said.