“Dead” Patient Awakens Before Organ Harvesting

Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm highlight a recent story published by CBS News concerning a hospital in Syracuse, New York. St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center was found negligent by the New York State Health Department for allowing a live patient to be taken off life support and prepared for organ harvesting.

The patient, Colleen Burns, was admitted to St. Joseph’s in 2009 after overdosing on Xanax, Benadryl and muscle relaxers. Despite nurse’s notes and records, physicians believed the woman had undergone “cardiac death,” and after speaking to her family, decided to withdraw life support and ultimately harvest and donate her organs.

According to nurse testimony, however, Burns was actually merely in a very deep coma when she was taken off life support, and did not have irreversible brain damage. In an investigation by the Health Department, staff reported that they did not adhere to the standard level of care for this patient in numerous ways.

First, they failed to perform a recommended treatment to stop the drugs from absorbing into her stomach and intestines. Then they did not perform brain scans to determine if there was activity and if she was free of all drugs. Physicians also failed to wait long enough before recommending to her family that she be taken off life support.

If doctors had paid closer attention to the nurse’s notes, they would have seen that Burns was not brain dead, and in fact showed signs of improvement. Routine reflex tests showed that her toes curled when the bottom of her foot was touched.

Despite clear notes that Burns was still alive, doctors began prepping the operating room for her organ harvesting. By this point, she could breathe independently, and her nose was flaring as she moved her lips and tongue. Again, despite these vital signs, she was taken into the OR and prepped for surgery. It was only when she actually opened her eyes that doctors called off the procedure.

Burns’ mother told the Syracuse Post-Standard that the doctors all seemed shocked when they told her her daughter was in fact alive and well. Unfortunately and tragically, Burns’ overdose was an unheard cry for help, and the incident failed to make any difference in her depression. In January 2011, she committed suicide.

Further exacerbating the incident, St. Joseph’s quality assurance program never completed an objective peer review into the incident, as required by law, nor did they conduct a root cause analysis until the Department of Health launched an investigation. In fact, there was no review of the case whatsoever until the Health Department made a surprise visit to the hospital. Even after the visit, the hospital produced a meager one-page report concerning the matter, citing the reason for the mistake as a difference in “perception.”

St. Joseph’s later stated that it had made personnel and policy changes and was re-examining everything it does related to quality. Ultimately, the hospital was fined only $6,000 for Burns’ unacceptable incident. Conversely, it was fined $16,000 for failing to prevent a patient from falling and hitting her head in 2011.

Medical malpractice lawyers highlight this story to remind the public that medical negligence is still very much an issue in the United States, causing devastating injuries and wrongful deaths. If you or a loved one was seriously injured as a result of medical negligence, you have important legal rights, and may be entitled to significant compensation through a lawsuit against the hospital or medical team.