Saturday, April 22, 2006

I had no idea

Two months ago we heard shocking reports about several individuals who were arrested for illegally harvesting body tissue in New Jersey funeral homes. [1] The tissues were provided to a legitimate medical supply company where they were properly processed and distributed to hospitals around the country – including to Community General Hospital.[2] The investigation into these matters is continuing, most recently with a probe of a Philadelphia funeral home.

We saw an entirely different kind of story in our local paper recently. For the 26th consecutive year, students from SUNY Upstate Medical University gathered at Weiskotten Hall for a memorial service to honor individuals who donated their bodies to science.

All of us benefit directly or indirectly from the gifts of bodies and body parts from voluntary donors. For many years the New York State driver’s license has included a short form allowing each of us to “make an anatomical gift to be effective upon my death.” This prompts a story about anatomical harvesting at CGH several years ago.

A young adult died in our Emergency Department as the result of a neurological event, and the spouse agreed to organ harvesting. The couple had been married only a few years, and they had discussed with each other their willingness to donate their bodies “to help others if something should happen.” When the patient was pronounced dead, the spouse readily gave consent, and the deceased patient went to the OR for harvesting.

Six months later the surviving spouse called me one morning and asked to meet with members of the Emergency Department and OR teams who cared for the patient who had died. “I want to thank them,” the spouse said, “and I have some unanswered questions, some things I am wondering about that I would like to ask.”

I did not know what to make of this request. The spouse was certainly heartfelt, but what were the “unanswered questions?”

Working with the Nursing Division, I arranged for a small reception in the Personnel Lounge for the spouse at mid-morning one day. I invited those who had cared for the patient to stop and introduce themselves to the spouse. It was voluntary, and I told the spouse that CGH people were busy, and I could not be sure how many would be able to attend.

Many did. Employees shook hands with the spouse and introduced themselves. They said, “I cared for your [spouse] in the ED,” and “I was with [the patient] in the OR.” They said, “I am sorry for your loss.” The spouse said, “Thank you so much for all you did,” and “Thank you for coming this morning.”

One nurse from the OR had done homework. She arrived with a small piece of paper that had numbers written on it. “Let me tell you about some of the people who benefited from [the patient’s] gift,” she began. “There was a 15 year-old girl in [a Southern state] with bone cancer. She received your [spouse’s] long bones. There was a middle-aged man in St. Louis who received the heart. I was there when the harvest team arrived from St. Louis. A few hours later, as we continued to work on your [spouse], there was a phone call that was put over the OR speaker. The caller said, ‘The heart is in the patient, and it is beating.’ And we all cheered.”

The nurse continued, “I tried to count the number of patients who were helped by [the patient’s] gift – the eyes, the kidneys, the skin, the bones, the heart. There were more than 150 individuals who were helped by some part of your [spouse]. The harvesting took many hours, and at the end we were all exhausted. We all said a prayer for your [spouse] in the OR.”

I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. “I had no idea,” the spouse said. “I had no idea that so many people were helped. Thank you for telling me this. You have no idea how much this means to me.”

This story has stayed with me all these years as a reminder of the good that we do – and how powerful it is when we explain what we do so others may share its meaning.

This CGH story – along with the annual memorial service at SUNY – are antidotes to the revulsion we feel at learning of the tissue scandal in New Jersey.

Please take out your driver’s license. Have you signed permission to be an anatomical donor “to help others if something should happen?”

[1] Two CNY patients got tissue linked to indicted supplier ,” Post-Standard, February 23, 2006
[2] “CGH opens info line on body tissue scare,” CGH Family Letter, February 25, 2006

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