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Woman Declared 'Dead' Opened Eyes Just Before Her Organs Were Harvested


"Dead people don't curl their toes."


A hospital in Syracuse, New York, has been fined $6,000 by the state health department for physicians nearly harvesting the organs of a woman thought dead but who was actually alive.

The incident occurred at St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center in 2009 after patient Colleen Burns had "died" of cardiac arrest as the result of a drug overdose, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.


Here's more from the report detailing the investigation:

A series of mistakes that began shortly after Burns arrived in the emergency room suffering from a drug overdose led to the near catastrophe, the investigations showed. A review by the state Health Department found:

  • Staff skipped a recommended treatment to prevent the drugs the patient took from being absorbed by her stomach and intestines.
  • Not enough testing was done to see if she was free of all drugs.
  • Not enough brain scans were performed.
  • Doctors ignored a nurse's observations indicating Burns was not dead and her condition was improving.

The hospital made no effort to thoroughly investigate what went wrong until it was prodded by the state.

Tests performed to ensure the woman was dead at the time included a reflex test in which Burns' toes curled. Her nostrils flared and her lips and tongue moved, among other signs mentioned by the Post-Standard as it reviewed documents from the state via a Freedom of Information Act request.

These signs did not stop the near donation of Burns organs from going forward though. It wasn't until she was in the operating room about to undergo the procedure when she opened her eyes.

"Dead people don't curl their toes," Dr. Charles Wetli, a forensic pathologist in New Jersey, told the Post-Standard. "And they don't fight against the respirator and want to breathe on their own."

He also is reported questioning why nurses, if they saw these signs of life, would give Burns a sedative.

"It would sedate her to the point that she would be non-reactive," the Post-Standard reported Dr. David Mayer with the New York Medical College saying. "If you have to sedate them or give them pain medication, they're not brain dead and you shouldn't be harvesting their organs."

The 41-year-old woman recovered from the incident at the time, but committed suicide two years later. The family didn't sue the hospital.

"She was so depressed that it really didn't make any difference to her," Burns' mother, Lucille Kuss, told the Post-Standard.

She also included that when she found out from doctors what happened to her daughter, she felt the physicians seemed "kind of shocked themselves."

"It came as a surprise to them as well," Kuss continued.

The hospital spokeswoman Kerri Howell would not discuss specific details but said it followed procedures of the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network in this case, noting it was "complicated in terms of care and diagnosis."

Howell included that the hospital "learned from this experience and have modified our policies to include the type of unusual circumstance presented in this case."

Read more details about the unusual event in the Post-Standard's full article.


(H/T: Opposing Views)


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