I held my mother's hand as she took her last breath. All three of us - her three children - were at her bedside. We were singing, singing the familiar and comforting Jewish prayers from the services we had grown up attending together. The cantor from her temple had come by a little earlier, and he stayed with us, singing in his beautiful voice, chanting the words that had comforted her in life and made her death last year a peaceful and dignified one.
Ruben Navarro, a 25-year-old disabled man who also died last year, just days before my mother, was not so lucky.
"Do you think this goes against God?" one of his nurses asked as the surgeon who had been sent to harvest the organs his mother had agreed to donate ordered that more medication be given to him to hasten his death.
It is clear that death with dignity was not the issue in the operating room that February night; ensuring that the organs would be useable was. After his respiratory tube was removed and he was given an initial injection of morphine and Ativan, Navarro didn't die. So the transplant surgeon sent the nurse hunting for more "candy," in the hopes that a double dose would speed his death so that his organs could be harvested within the 30-minute period necessary to make them "viable." When it didn't work, the doctor got on the phone while the patient lay there "frothing from the mouth and shivering." He ultimately died seven hours later, at a point when his organs were no longer viable.
Now, everyone has lawyers, and the transplant doctor is facing felony charges.
There is perhaps no greater gift a family or an individual can give than the gift of their organs to save the life or lives of others who need them. But no one is going to choose to donate organs if it comes at the price of a dignified death for their loved one.
In Navarro's case, as you can imagine, the various participants are all pointing fingers at each other.
What rings truest is the comment of the mother's lawyer that the documents paint a picture "so horrifying and gruesome" that he doesn't want to show them to his client. Plainly, no one was holding this young man's hand and singing prayers to him as the injections were given.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a haunting novel about a futuristic English school in which children are cloned and raised to be organ donors, donating each of their vital organs until they finally "complete," which is to say, die. The unseen characters in the book are the doctors who carry out this scheme, who cloned the children and harvest their organs.
Obviously, no one committed murder here. The transplant surgeon was trying to save lives, not take them. But we need to do a better job of ensuring that in our haste to save lives, we don't deprive the dying, and their families, of the dignity they deserve.
2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.