The captain's announcement on Southwest Airlines flight #3606 to Dallas last week certainly got passengers' attention.

They'd departed Seattle and were now over Idaho--but they'd have to go back to Seattle, the captain said, after a human heart had accidentally been left aboard. 

I imagine you reading that on your phone, and needing some verification. So, imagine how people aboard the flight felt. But yes: a human heart.

Passengers reacted with shock, Dr. Andrew Gottschalk, who was aboard, told the Seattle Times. They Googled to figure out how long a human heart can remain viable for transplant (mere hours, as it turns out). And the mood changed. People were just "happy to save a life," he said.

But then, the plane landed. The story spread People started asking the obvious question: Had a life actually been saved?

Because hospitals in the area didn't report any scheduled heart transplants. Southwest Airlines didn't apparently know, or at least was not in a position to say. The airline reported that:

"[W]e learned of a life-critical cargo shipment onboard the aircraft that was intended to stay in Seattle for delivery to a local hospital. Therefore, we made the decision to return to Seattle as it was absolutely necessary..."

And to make things more uncomfortable, back in Seattle, the flight was delayed another five hours due to a mechanical issue. But hey, it was a life-saving mission, right?

As it turns out: Maybe not exactly.

Because the local newspaper in Seattle kept digging, and to her credit, reporter Paige Cornwell figured out where the heart was headed--not to a patient, waiting in a hospital for a life-saving transplant that very day, as many envisioned.

Instead, she wrote the human heart "was being sent to an area tissue processor to recover valves." And while the valves will ultimately be used in transplants, there isn't a waiting patient at this time.

"The most important part is that no one was waiting," said Deanna Santana of Sierra Donor Services in Sacramento, Calif, who added that it was delivered with 12 hours to go before the tissue would no longer have been usable. "Despite the detour, all is well."

So, the good news, if you can follow this--

  • Passengers were aghast to think that someone might have died if he or she had been waiting for the heart that had been inadvertently left on their flight.
  • But their fears were allayed because there was no waiting patient in the first place.

With no life-saving transplant patient waiting in Seattle, however, some of the passengers were no longer quite so happy to have had to turn around to begin with.

"As it turns out, there was nothing critical about the shipment," Dr. Gottschalk, told the newspaper after the update. "The shipment may as well have been a suitcase."