As some nations move towards presumed consent on organ donations, there are more frequent occupancies of patients who are waking up from presumed death just as doctors are ready to harvest their organs for transplant.
Our of New York state comes this story of a patient who woke up just in time. From ABC News:
It was exactly midnight when Caroline Burns eerily opened her eyes and looked at the operating lights above her, shocking doctors who believed she was dead and were about to remove her organs and donate them to patients on the transplant waiting list.
The Syracuse Post-Standard unearthed a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that chronicled the series of errors that led to the near-organ removal on a living patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, N.Y., in 2009.
“The patient did not suffer a cardiopulmonary arrest (as documented) and did not have irreversible brain damage,” the HHS report concluded. “The patient did not meet criteria for withdrawal of care.”
According to the report, doctors had inaccurately diagnosed Burns with irreversible brain damage and ignored nurses who’d noticed signs that Burns was improving: She curled her toes when touched, flared her nostrils and moved her mouth and tongue. She was also breathing on her own even though she was on a respirator.
Burns, who was 41 at the time, was initially found unresponsive and surrounded by empty bottles of Xanax, Benadryl, a muscle relaxant and an anti-inflammatory drug on Oct.16, 2009, according to the report. She was hypothermic and had a weak pulse, but she was alive.
In the St. Josephs emergency room, doctors performed toxicology tests and determined Burns was suffering from a multidrug overdose, according to the report. She was unresponsive and put on a ventilator.
The family made the decision to take Burns off life support and donate her organs the next day.
Although Burns opened her eyes at the last minute, saving herself from the organ harvest procedure, she committed suicide in 2011. The family never sued, and family members told the Syracuse Post-Standard that Burns was too depressed to be upset about what happened to her at St. Joseph’s.
But this isn’t the first time this has happened.
In what is becoming a more common theme, doctors rushed too fast to attempt to take the organs of a British man who was thought to be “brain dead” but recovered — thanks in part to the dedication of his family.
The case reminds of one that received attention in December in which a 20-year-old man awoke from a coma just hours before doctors were ready to shut off life support and take his organs for donation purposes.
Sam Schmid, an Arizona college student who was thought to be brain dead, recovered from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in October just hours before he was slated to be killed and his organs given to other patients.
The accident took the life of his best friend and college roommate and Schmid’s injuries were thought to be so grievous that a local hospital could not treat him and he was sent to Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Phoenix to receive surgery for a life-threatening aneurysm.
As hospital officials began palliative care and talked with his parents about organ donation, Schmid began to hold up two fingers on command and started walking with the aid of a walker. Now, his speech has improved and doctors say he will have a complete recovery.
The case provides yet another example of what pro-life bioethicists like Wesley J. Smith have warned about misjudging patients as too far gone too soon and relegating them to organ donor status:
For years, organ transplant ethicists and some in the bioethics community have agitated to change the definition of death from a purely biological determination, to one based in utilitarianism and desired sociological narratives. Why mess with death? Too few organs are donated for transplant, leading to long waiting lines and the deaths of some people who might be saved were organs more readily available.
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But why redefine death? The point of this reckless advocacy — although they don’t put it this bluntly — is that there are thousands of perfectly good organs being used by people who really don’t need them anymore, by which they mean patients with profound cognitive impairments who will remain unconscious or minimally aware for the rest of their lives. Why not harvest such patients, this thinking goes, for the benefit of people who could return to normal lives?
The problem is that would break the “dead donor rule,” the legal and moral pact organ transplant medicine made with society promising that vital organs would only be harvested from patients who are truly dead. Hence, if the definition of death were loosened to include, say, a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state, more organs could be obtained — and the dead donor rule could still appear to be honored, deemed essential for transplant medicine to retain the trust of society.
Of course, that would be fiction, and the redefinition actually a betrayal. What these “ethicists” really propose is killing for organs, a view now being promoted in some of the world’s most prestigious medical, science, and bioethical journals. For example, Nature recently editorialized in favor of liberalizing the rules governing brain death.
Currently, brain death requires the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain and each of its constituent parts. Nature’s editorial claimed — without proof — that doctors obey “the spirit but not the letter, of this law. And many are feeling uncomfortable about it.”