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Posted on August 3, 2010 at 6:58 AM

Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead! We’d like to harvest their organs now!

Most Monty Python fans associate organ harvesting with The Meaning of Life’s Live Organ Transplantation, but New York City’s “rapid organ recovery plan” has much more in common with this other famous Holy Grail skit than it does with anything else.

The claim made by Bellevue Hospital Center is simple enough: most people do not die in hospitals, and therefore, a way to procure cadaveric organs for transplant in settings outside the hospital is needed. Enter the (drum roll please) “organ preservation vehicle”! Yes, that’s right folks, an organ harvesting team on wheels that can come directly to your recently deceased loved one and pluck those precious commodities right out.

But this isn’t really the problem. Not anymore.

After painstakingly working to ensure appropriate consent and other procedures are in place, seriously, who could object? It turns out–just to name one stakeholder–law enforcement. I mean, it’s great that we can increase the number of organs available for transplant and all, but some of these dead bodies are needed for crime solving.


What is an organ harvesting team to do when Gary Sinise comes knocking and says “Don’t touch that body! It’s evidence!” all CSI-style?

The bottom line is that the dispute needs to be worked out. If bodies feared to be part of foul play have to be looked over by the medical examiner, the small window in which organs can be harvested will likely pass and precious life-saving organs will be lost.

Of course, I question whether or not this kind of at-home, real-time harvesting is the appropriate method at all. In the case where the newly deceased is clearly an organ donor and has expressed wishes to donate, I think that the case is clear and donation is unobjectionable.

However, having the “OPV” roll up on every house with a 911 call for a massive MI or a gunshot or stabbing where a patient’s wishes about donation may not be known puts the family (or whoever is present) in the awkward position of having to deal with decision-making that is likely to be sub-optimal.

Frankly though, these law enforcement issues are silly and are likely to impact very few cases except those in the precise area where the program is being piloted (which is interesting in and of itself).

Otherwise, I think the program has potential, but only for harvesting organs for those who already planned to donate organs but who happened to die at home.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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