The sound of Sam's pager suddenly awakens him. A third-year medical student, Sam is in the midst of his trauma surgery rotation. He rushes to the trauma department and learns that his next patient, Justin Lewis, is a 20-year-old male who was in a major automobile accident. Tested en route to the hospital, Justin had a Glasgowcoma scale score of 3. As Justin is brought to the trauma room, the paramedics tell the attending physician, Dr. Hardy, what they know about the accident. According to the EMTs, Justin fell out of a car that was traveling 70 miles per hour and landed on this head. After an extensive emergency room workup, Justin is declared brain dead. Prior to disconnecting him from the ventilator, the ER staff discovers that he has an organ donor card in his wallet. Familiar with the organ donation procedures, Sam calls the organ procurement agency while Dr. Hardy tells Justin's family the news.
An hour later, Mr. Sterling, a representative from the organ procurement organization arrives at the hospital and introduces himself to the family. Justin's father tells Mr. Sterling that his son definitely wanted to donate his organs, but Justin's mother interjects. She is adamantly opposed to anyone's taking organs out of her son.
Meanwhile, Sam asks Dr. Hardy what the plan for the patient is. Dr. Hardy says that Justin will remain on mechanical ventilation until a final decision is made regarding donation of his organs.
The death of most people who become deceased organ donors is sudden, unexpected, and frequently tragic. The families of these donors are almost never prepared for this unfortunate situation. In addition to dealing with an unexpected injury or intracerebral accident, the family must come to terms with the fact that their loved one is dead. They may have a difficult time accepting this since the patient has a heartbeat, a measurable blood pressure, produces urine, and has good skin color and other indications that suggest life. Many individuals (even physicians) do not understand the concept of brain death. And now someone the family has not seen before comes in from something called an organ procurement organization and asks permission to remove the organs of their son or mother or sister for transplantation. The stresses associated with the initial injury, the death, and now the request for organs cannot be underestimated and can be difficult for anyone who has not gone through this process to fully appreciate.
Yet organ donation can salvage a great deal of good from a tragic circumstance. Knowing that their loved one can save and improve the lives of other individuals through organ and tissue donation can be a source of great solace and comfort. The organ donation can become a living memory of and tribute to their relative.
In the example cited here a 20-year-old man, Justin Lewis, died in an automobile accident, and testing showed he was a suitable potential organ and tissue donor. In this particular case, it was discovered that he had signed an organ donor card. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) of 1968 clearly indicates that a donor card signed in the presence of 2 witnesses is legally binding. The act was adopted by all states within 3 years. Many organ procurement organizations (OPOs), however, do not take advantage of this provision because they are concerned about their relations with the family as well as about potential legal disputes and adverse publicity that could result in a decline in organ donation should they act upon the donor's consent—even though such worries have not proved to be an issue in most places.
States have responded to this concern, and legislation authorizing the donors intent, called "first-person consent," has now been enacted in 42 states. These laws acknowledge that a documented donation decision (donor card, drivers' license, donor registry, etc) that has not been revoked by the donor prior to death, is legally binding and does not require the consent of any other person upon death. Despite this legislation, many OPOs are still reluctant to pursue first-person consent. Fifteen years following the enactment of the UAGA, OPOs in only 4 states reported they were actively practicing first-person consent organ donation recoveries.
In the case of this 20-year-old designated donor, our organ procurement organization, would have modified its approach to the family. The staff would have notified the parents that their son had clearly showed his intent to be a donor by so designating on his driver's license and that we planned to honor his wishes. Even if both parents disagree with organ donation, the signed organ donor card is sufficient permission for the OPO to recover organs for transplantation. We have had only a few differences of opinion with the donors' legal next of kin in honoring first-person consent.
The case of Justin Lewis would not be unmanageable for an OPO that is actively pursuing first-person consent cases. The OPO staff must discuss organ donation and what it entails with the family and answer their questions in a supportive, non-confrontational, non-threatening manner. We have found that much of the objection to organ donation is due to lack of accurate information. For instance, some individuals believe that if organ or tissue donation occurs, there can be no viewing of the body afterwards. Some will agree to organ donation once they realize that a viewing can still take place and that no incisions will be made on the head or neck.
Parental or next-of-kin refusal often has less to do with the concept of organ donation than with control or authority for decision making for their injured and now dead relative. Building a relationship with the family by asking questions about what type of person their relative was can assist in establishing communication related to the patient; the importance of this relationship cannot be overstated. Having a sympathetic OPO coordinator or designated requester who is willing to take time with the family, hear their concerns, and answer questions frequently means the difference between obtaining permission and being met with refusal. Asking the parents if they understood what the physician told them about brain death also provides an opportunity for educating and trust-building.
Even if the OPO staff or other designated requestors aren't negotiating with family members to obtain consent, they should still speak to the next-of-kin in a quiet room that is softly lit and has enough chairs so that no person is left standing. The number of people in the room should be limited to 1 or 2 family members. The more people who are in the room, the more likely someone will object to donation. It is important for the requestor staff to state that the adult decedent willingly made a choice to give the "gift of life" upon his or her death, and that the purpose of the meeting is to answer any questions they may have about the procedure and to ask some questions about the medical history of the donor.
Although the law is on the side of the designated donor, it is critical to procurement organizations, transplant centers, and recipients that the OPO make a concerted effort to establish a cooperative relationship with the family. Legal and public conflicts that could result in fewer donors must be avoided. Willing participation from the family will also enable the procurement coordinator to obtain a thorough medical and social history, and will allow him or her to explain the procedure fully, confirm that donation will not interfere with the funeral, clarify that the OPO will assume hospital costs related to the donation, and convey much other information.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to establish a positive relationship with the family of a potential donor is the benefit it offers to the future of organ donation. Working cooperatively with the donor family will result in a positive continued relationship. The surviving family members of a donor are known as donor families, and, in our mission to increase awareness of the need for more organ donors, donor families remain an unparalleled resource for promoting the message.
When an OPO makes the choice to recover organs from a designated donor against the family's wishes, an ethical balancing act may ensue. Some would argue that the wishes of the surviving family members should be given primary consideration; that procuring organs from a deceased patient in opposition to the family's desire will add to their grief, especially in the case of parents. But others will dispute that the surviving family members deserve primary consideration, arguing that the patient's wishes to be an organ donor upon death must be honored. Is it ethical for the OPO to walk away from a patient and not honor the documented decision he or she made while alive? Is it defensible to decide not to attempt to place and procure organs for transplant because the family doesn't agree with the decision the adult patient made during life? Finally, is it right to ignore the patient's request because he can no longer speak for himself?
Would we deny living patients' the right to decline blood products, to see their religious representative, or to decline cardiopulmonary resuscitation? The answer, simply, is no. People who make the decision to become donors during their lives have a right to have that decision carried out upon their death. It is not ethical for an OPO to refuse to recover organs only because the donor can no longer speak for himself or herself. We believe the wishes of someone who signs a donor card should be respected even if the family disagrees. And yet we realize there may be unique circumstances where pursuing first- person consent might not be in the best interest of the family or of the transplantation community. Every potential donor situation has unique aspects. While some OPOs err on the side of the designated donor, there is no 1 formula that will always guarantee a good outcome.
There are also times when a disagreement about donation cannot be resolved among family members (and where the donor has not indicated his wishes while alive). If a resolution is not attainable despite the best efforts of the OPO coordinator, it may be appropriate for the OPO to withdraw and make no further efforts to get those who object to donation to change their minds. In these situations the family usually comes to a consensus and refuses permission for donation. If, for example, the family stated that the patient, in the presence of his mother, girlfriend, or other family member, verbally revoked his decision to become a donor, the OPO would have to withdraw all attempts of obtaining consent for donation.