Excuse me doctor - I am still using my internal organs

Thomas Secrest's picture
Organ donor card (NHS)

A strange situation occurred in a Syracuse, New York hospital in 2009 but the story seems to have just now entered the public domain.

As a reader interested in health issues, I think you will find this look at the story more thought provoking than the superficial treatment the story was given by most news organizations.

The patient in this Edgar Allan Poe-ish organ harvesting nightmare was Colleen Burns. Ms Burns had attempted suicide by taking Xanax, Benadryl and an unnamed anti-inflammatory. The stories that reported the account don’t say how much medicine she took, but a good doctor would know that it would take a lot, probably a lot more that she took. Xanax can be prescribed for people with depression because it has a good safety profile and fatal overdoses usually require more than is prescribed at any one time.

For unknown reasons, the typical procedures for reversing a drug overdose were not used on Ms Burns and the drugs in her stomach continued to enter her system. On the 18th of Oct. 2009 her prognosis was considered poor; although CT scans of her head, on the 16th and 17th, looked normal. On the 18th of October, a “wait and see” approach was adopted.

According to nursing reports there were signs of progress and clear indications that Ms Burns had a functional brain stem (she was able to breathe without assistance) and she had certain reflexes that are only present with higher level brain function. The nursing reports noted improvement in her condition.

Before I tell you the next part let me jump to the hospital investigation that occurred 5 months after the incident. The hospital found that protocol had been followed and that the doctors hadn’t done anything wrong.

Now we can it get to the weird part; on the same day the doctors decided to “wait and see” they told the Burns family that Ms Burns had experienced a cardiorespiratory arrest and had irreversible brain damage; however, Ms Burns medical records show that neither of these things were true.


Based on the doctors' information, the Burns family decided to conclude life support and they agreed to make her organs available for donation the next day, which would have been Oct. 19, 2009.

At just after midnight on the morning of Oct. 19, 2009, the doctors prepared Ms Burns for organ harvesting. Part of the procedure involved a significant does of a sedative called Ativan. Ativan is a drug very similar to Valium. Ativan is used to reduce anxiety in patients before surgery. Like several of the doctors who reviewed the case, I too found it odd that a “dead woman” would be given Ativan prior to organ harvesting, since, in theory, brain dead people shouldn’t be overly anxious. Despite continuing signs of brain function, the doctors were preparing to open Ms Burns like a can of tuna, when she suddenly opened her eyes.

In this case the windows to the soul reveal a brain that was much more alive than dead, therefore, procedure was cancelled.

Ms Burns would continue her recovery and would ultimately fully recover. However, the underlying depression that had put her in these bizarre circumstances would come back to guide her hand against herself again and this time there would be no last minute reprieve. Ms Burns died in 2011 at the age of 41.

There were additional investigations and the hospital came under ridicule for it procedures. The hospital paid some amount (my research found differing amounts from $6000 to $22,000) to Ms Burns. Many authorities who commented on the case mentioned how rarely this type of thing happens and they referenced guidelines which, if followed, should make it impossible for such a mistake to be made.

However, consider this; the actions of the doctors/hospital seem to be curiously malevolent:
• They lied about the cardiorespiratory arrest
• They lied about the irreversible brain damage
• They failed to conduct neurological testing that should have made it impossible to misdiagnose brain death
• They failed to administer normal overdose treatment
• They ignored comments from nursing staff that indicated higher brain function in the patient
• They ignored indications of lower brain function in the patient
• The “wait and see” approach lasted for only a few hours
• The use of a sedative on what they claimed was a “brain dead” patient
• Multiple events were not documented in the patient’s records

If the doctors had chosen a faster acting sedative or if they had waited a little longer for the sedative to work, you would not be reading this and I would not be writing it. You would not be reading this because, the organ harvest would have proceeded uneventfully and Ms Burns would have been pronounced dead on Oct. 19, 2009, just a little past midnight.

We’re left with the question, does it really happen rarely or do we simply hear about it rarely?

In tomorrow’s article I plan to take a look at the criteria used to pronounce death.