Edit: USA Today wrote a very important article following my blog post called Death by Donation: Euthanizing Patients for Organs.
Although I am a Catholic priest, I am also an ex-paramedic and I graduated pre-health from Boston College. I am writing this blog post “Why you should say no to organ donation on your driver’s license” as a former paramedic, not as a priest. In other words, this blog post will be practical medical advice for all readers Catholic or non-Catholic. There will be no overt Catholic bioethics below, except these two sentences: The Catholic Church has no problem with organ donation per-se. The problem is that certain organs are always cut out of living people, effecting a homicide for “good reasons.”
Although a liver or a cornea could be harvested from a cadaver for organ donation from a dead body, a heart is always cut out of a living body in first world countries. The term “Brain Death” was invented by a team of Harvard physicians to re-define death for this very purpose. So called “brain-death” essentially means that a patient has an active cardio-vascular system, but with reduced activity on the electroencephalogram (EEG.) An EEG measures electrical activity in the brain. This should not be confused with an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) which measures the electrical activity of the heart. Transplant surgeons prefer to cut the heart out of live patients with active EKGs (but minimal EEGs) because a heart that has stopped beating actually harms the tissue via something called a “hypoxic insult” to the tissue. Remember that the heart must beat oxygen-rich blood not only to the whole body, but to the heart itself.
In lay terms, Cardiac muscle goes so badly so quickly after the heart stops beating that transplant surgeons must find a way to anesthetize the patient so as to cut the heart out of that living body. It should be obvious that a dead body would not need anesthesia! But this sounds too creepy to exist without a cover. Harvard Medical invented the cover, “Brain Death” precisely so as to justify the harvesting of hearts from living people. If you put “Yes” on your Driver’s License to organ donation, and if you were to sustain a Traumatic Brain Injury with no damage to your cardiovascular system, you would certainly be a prime candidate to have your heart cut out of your own living body (deemed brain dead because of a reduced EEG.)
The New England Journal of Medicine recently removed an article formerly found here where they admitted that transplant surgeons were cutting the hearts out of live patients. Their bioethical justification read word-for-word: “Many will object that transplantation surgeons cannot legally or ethically remove vital organs from patients before death, since doing so will cause their death. However, if the critiques of the current methods of diagnosing death are correct, then such actions are already taking place on a routine basis.” Let me translate that into lay terms: “Some people may think it’s wrong to cut organs out of living people, and they might be correct, but it’s irrelevant because they’re simply too late to protest, since we’ve already been doing it for quite a while.”
To be sure, certain organs can be cut from a live person with no challenge from even the most conservative bioethicists. For example, one person could give another person a kidney, and both could go on living. But after certain traumatic events, especially neuro-trauma (head and neck) the transplant surgeons aim to harvest the heart for the next living person that could use it. Again, this must be cut from a living patient who has been declared to have reduced brain activity, aka “Brain Death,” as the cover to appease the more squeamish of bioethicists. Besides the fact that this is justifying murder (as some surgical cut has to stop the heart!) it should be noted that numerous people who had formerly been declared “brain dead” have actually recovered. Dr. Shewmon MD of Pediatric Neurology at UCLA has demonstrated that children who have survived as brain dead for up to 14 years have overcome infections and even their wounds.
For this reason, we must consider that Byrne et. al. in the book Life, Life Support and Death write “No one shall be determined or declared dead unless and until there is destruction of at least the three basic unifying systems of the body, namely, the circulatory and respiratory systems, and the entire brain.”
When I was a priest on loan to Florida last year, I was called to help a Spanish-only speaking family who I had never met. The parents were from Mexico, but they had raised their three children in California. Their 33 year old son, Joel, had been a very popular restaurant-worker there in Jacksonville, FL. For reasons unknown, he was shot in the head one night last year and transported by Jax EMS to Memorial Hospital where he was resuscitated and moved to the ICU. The Gun Shot Wound (GSW) to the head seemed to be incompatible with “a meaningful life.” Thus, the hospital staff wanted to wheel Joel away to harvest his heart from his living body in a separate room. However, this would mean that Joel would not die in the presence of his parents in the ICU. (You can’t exactly have parents watch you cut the heart out of their live son.) I had just arrived to intervene at this time, and I subsequently explained this to the parents the fate of their son. Naturally, his parents refused to have their living son, who was able to make eye contact, killed for his heart.
In response to my intervention and his parents’ wishes, Joel was left in the ICU to starve to death. We protested this decision in both English and Spanish, but were ignored for nearly two days with Joel starving. Finally, I called civil attorneys in Washington DC with a group called Life Legal Defense Foundation. Joel’s parents gave permission for them to publish his story here.
Ultimately, LLDF’s attorney was able to force the hospital ICU physicians to establish a nasogastric tube to feed Joel. Joel received artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) until he died a few days later in the ICU from the GSW. Although a GSW is not to be considered a “natural death,” it was certainly a more natural death than having his live heart cut out of his living body. As you can see from the above picture, Joel was able to look at me when I took out my phone for a picture with him and his mother. A few days later, Joel died a peaceful death with no narcotics. He died with the sacraments. He died with his parents and brother at his side. None of this would have been possible if hospital staff had been able to cut his heart out of his living body and/or overdose him with narcotics.
My suggestion as an ex-paramedic is to put “No” on your Driver’s License to organ donation. A better option is this: A Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Document is a legal document that lets you name someone else to make decisions about your health care in case you are not able to make those decisions yourself. Should you wish to indicate to that person that you wish to donate, say, liver or kidneys or cornea to patients who need it (in the event that you die) then the person you have made your Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (who hopefully shares a similar set of bioethics as you) can make that decision for you. It is better to start with a “No” to that organ donation on your driver’s license and let your spouse dial that up, than to start with a “Yes” and have a loved-one unable to stop you from being wheeled away as your heart is cut out of your living body, should you have just sustained a traumatic brain injury.