The quick and the dead

How dead should a person be before transplant surgeons swoop in and harvest their organs for donation? According to a new book, “pretty dead” is close enough for many of these surgeons.

According to one transplant surgeon interviewed for the book, “If you wait for everything to be 100 percent, you’d never have an organ donation.”

Maybe not. But the presumed dead used to be given a second chance. Various customs for making sure “the dead” had actually died before given a premature burial included cutting off a finger (Greeks), calling out the name of the deceased (Romans), or rubbing the body with warm water. Hebrews wisely considered only the onset of putrefaction as fool-proof evidence. 

Then suddenly, with the advent of high-tech medicine, including invention of ventilators and advances in organ transplants, 5,000 years of time-tested cultural traditions were overturned.

In 1968, a Harvard University committee of thirteen self-appointed “experts” declared loss of heartbeat and breathing to be the official markers of death. Which, as the book states, allows doctors “to declare a person dead in less time than it takes to get a decent eye exam.”

Now, patients with still-beating hearts can be declared brain-dead. And with no real consensus on what true brain death entails, it can be a quick trip from being “unconscious” to being “harvested” in the operating room. With no hope for a “second chance.” At least not for the donor.

This convenient definition of “death” can be manipulated at will by medical teams in order to create a vast pool of potential organ donors.

And the burden is on the patients to prove they are aware or in pain.

A donor headed for the transplant table may indeed receive “the best medical care of his life” (according to another quote from the book). But that’s no real consolation for a life being cut short prematurely.

To learn more about the organ transplant industry, you can find this excellent new book, The Undead (by Dick Teresi) at your local bookstore.

And, in the meantime, think twice before letting some bureaucrat at the Department of Motor Vehicles sign your life away by adding that “Organ Donor” icon to your driver’s license.