Sunday, April 08, 2012

The New "Buried Alive"

The May 2012 issue of DISCOVER magazine contains an excerpt from "The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers -- How Medicine Is Blurring The Line Between Life And Death" by Dick Teresi.

I was shocked to read that the American organ transplant industry is so profitable (for everyone except the donor, the donor's family, and the donor's estate!) that doctors and hospitals (who are paid finders' fees) will torture and butcher (without anaesthetic) "suitable" donors, even if those so-called brain dead, beating heart cadavers draw breath on their own, or flinch in pain, or respond when their nipples or penises are stroked, or have a heart attack or seizure.

Torture may be too strong a word. Doctors establish brain death by pouring ice water into their (hopefully) unreceptive and unresponsive patient's ears and subjecting limbs to "the most intensely painful stimuli".

At least, in Europe, these "beating heart cadavers" are given anaesthesia while their hearts, livers, kidneys, corneas, lungs and so forth are being removed. Just in case. In America, unresponsive organ donors receive no such consideration.

The author, Dick Teresi, points out that anyone who goes under general anaesthetic for routine surgery is
technically put into a state of brain death. Temporarily. The only difference between being "under" for surgery and passing the Beating Heart Cadaver test is that the former state is not "irreversible" and the later state is deemed "irreversible" by a physician.

I'm troubled by the possibility that the physician who might do the deeming, might also be paid a finder's fee. Whatever happened to "First, Do No Harm"?

I lived in Europe during the decade of mad cow disease. Therefore, I am not permitted to donate blood. I've offered. I've tried. Now, I wonder whether I ought to get myself a nice, tasteful tattoo in a clear font explaining my unsuitability as a donor.

Anyway, I thought that the historical horror stories of coffins scratched from the inside were bad. I thought that the assembly-line organ-harvesting machine in Lexx was grisly!


  1. I'm appalled by your believing everything Dick Teresi says without checking some facts. I trained as an anesthesiologist in Europe , and organ donors do NOT receive anesthesia there. They are dead. Physicians do NOT get paid finders fee's. That's completely wrong. Declaration of death is a separate entity from organ donation. I have declared many dead who do not go onto donation. They do not wake up. They do not recover. The rest of the organs follow the brain and die. I'm honestly puzzled by the willingness to believe things like this, without looking into it more. Yes, transplants cost money. So does coronary artery bypass and spine surgery. Not that much different a price tag. It costs money because it's complicated and involves a lot of people. But there's no massive corporation making lots of cash. These are non-profit organizations for the most part, regulated by government, and subject to regular audit and review.
    so while the scare stories sound dramatic and get everybody excited, they frighten some, and reduce donor numbers - and remember 18 people die a day waiting for organs. So be careful what you wish for...

  2. Hi Rowan:

    I'm following up on Mike's comments here about the article. I think you may have jumped to some conclusions about the article. While I think Dick Teresi's piece lays somewhere between irresponsible fear-mongering and a college freshman's essay, I don't believe he ever said that doctors torture or butcher suitable donors. While his arguments are barely tolerable, his main question seems to be: do beating heart cadavers feel pain? He presents anecdotal evidence that sometimes bodies DO something (as you noted), although they are declared brain dead. His intent appears less about supporting any thesis and more about scaring his readers. Alas, as per your comments about being buried alive, he succeeded. It is unfortunate that this sort of hackery is being taken seriously (or published at all). I exhort you to re-read the article with an eye on the facts, not the tactics.




    Man wakes up in morgue after being deemed dead: What went wrong?


  7. Mike,
    Thank you for your comment, and for the clarification about what happens in Europe.

    We do seem to have seen in the news quite a number of people whom doctors have declared dead, not being dead after all.

    I think Dick Teresi's most thought provoking point was whether or not the standards used to decide whether someone whose heart is still beating is "dead" are sufficiently rigorous.

  8. And just this week (first week of June) we have another infant, I think in Brazil, pronounced stillborn and discovered alive in the morgue, and a six-year-old who sat up at his wake and asked for water.

    Yes, he expired thereafter and could not be revived, but I cannot help wondering if he could have sat up in an OR, if someone had needed him to be a donor.

    Medical technology may be wonderful, but the original owners of the organs have the greater right to the use of them.

    To Mike, who said that 18 people a day die waiting for organs.... those people are not entitled to someone else's organs.

    They are not entitled!