In an eleventh-hour attempt to save the life of a comatose Fort Washington man, surgeons from Washington Hospital Center flew to a Chicago suburb to remove the heart of a 9-year-old boy and rushed back to transplant it into the chest of their patient.

Two more heart transplants were performed in the District during a 36-hour period last weekend, bringing to 16 the number of heart transplants done in the area in less than a year. All of the patients are still alive. The doctors say the flurry of activity proves the newly formed Washington Regional Transplant Consortium was a sound idea.

City health planners approved the consortium last March, paving the way for heart transplants in the District. However, the planners were initially skeptical about the program and questioned the need for heart transplantation in Washington since there were two well-established programs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.

The success of the recent operations has "vindicated" the consortium, said Dr. John Macoviak, the chief heart transplant surgeon at Washington Hospital Center. The consortium includes Georgetown University Hospital, Howard University Hospital, Children's Hospital, George Washington University Hospital and Fairfax Hospital.

"Things seem to be going okay," said Carlessia A. Hussein, the District's chief health planner. She said the hospitals have kept her staff informed about all of the cases and she has heard no complaints. Hussein's State Health Planning and Development Agency will review the project later this year and decide whether it will be allowed to continue.

Fairfax Hospital, which won separate approval from Virginia health planners to perform heart transplants last year, has done seven procedures since December. Since June, eight transplants have been performed at Washington Hospital Center and one at Georgetown. Heart transplantation began in the United States in 1968 and the operations are now performed frequently at about 90 centers around the country.

The program "has exceeded our expectations -- we only expected to do 14 {transplants} in the first year," said Dr. Lewis P. Scott, a cardiologist at Children's Hospital who heads the consortium's medical advisory committee. "I've been continuously astonished at how well the institutions are working together." Scott also said heart transplants will be available at Children's as soon as it hires a second cardiac surgeon.

Lori Brigham, the consortium's executive director, said the hospitals expect to be reimbursed for most of the operations that cost about $60,000 since most of the patients have private insurance. The federally funded Medicare program will not pay for transplants at programs that have been running for less than three years, and Brigham is negotiating with D.C. Medicaid on payment for a patient whose heart was transplanted at Fairfax Hospital.

At Howard University Hospital, doctors have elected to concentrate their efforts on liver transplants, a consortium official said. Last week the consortium submitted an application to health planners for permission to begin doing liver transplants.

Jim Cutler, transplant coordinator at Fairfax Hospital, said that while the heart transplant consortium has gotten off to a good start, it is still evolving. He said it is important that the program develop a data base that shows a good track record for those patients. Cutler also noted an absence of institutional jealousy among the participating hospitals.

That cooperative spirit proved valuable over the Labor Day weekend beginning Saturday afternoon when Tyrone Williams, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer with the D.C. schools, slipped into a coma; his weak heart barely beating with the help of machines at Washington Hospital Center.

That evening a national, computerized organ registry found a possible donor. Cardiac surgeons Jorge Garcia and Paul Corso traveled to Park Ridge, Ill., to remove the heart from a 163-pound, 9-year-old boy who had died after choking on a snack at school. The doctors compared the heart and artery measurements with those of their stricken patient. "It was a perfect match," Corso said.

Early Sunday morning he and Garcia flew back to Washington in three hours and 15 minutes, where Macoviak had already begun operating on Williams. Two hours later, Williams had a new, working heart.

Sunday evening Macoviak helped remove a heart from a donor at the Hospital Center and took it to Georgetown University Hospital where Dr. Nevin Katz transplanted it into a 53-year-old man who was dying of severe coronary artery disease. The patient's own heart was severely scarred from previous heart attacks and a triple bypass done in 1985, Katz said.

The patient, Paul Cooper, of Frostburg, Md., was gravely ill and depressed, Katz said, particularly after he was awakened from an aborted transplant operation three weeks ago when the donor organ failed. The day after his successful transplant, Cooper was volunteering to pose for photographs, Katz said.

Monday night the team was busy again. A donor with rare type AB blood was declared brain dead. A Baltimore man who was waiting at home for a suitable match was called and within hours he, too, received a new heart.

The doctors believe the success of the Washington heart transplants will benefit all types of transplantation in the area. "There are going to be more donors becoming available because there is more awareness," Macoviak said.