Barely Dead, Organs Harvested

More popular and also more controversial in the U.S.: harvesting organs from a patient just minutes after death.

Donating organs has always been a life-saving practice for many who have been able to survive due to generous people that, although they lost their own lives, gave a second thought to the lives of others.

While harvesting organs from a donor was usually done after doctors pronounced the patient brain dead, nowadays the precious organs are taken within minutes of the heart stopping beating.

Those who oppose this practice say that it can very well be detrimental to the patient, as the potential chances of survival can be seriously, well actually fatally, influenced.

According to the Washington Post, this practice, of declaring heart failure and not waiting for the brain dead 'verdict' before harvesting organs has been in place for decades but has seen unprecedented growth in recent years.

There is a great demand for organs such as livers, lungs and hearts and these need to be removed from deceased patients as soon as possible, in order to be useable and to save lives.

Those who worry about the ethical aspects of this situation argue that people might very well be saved at the price of sacrificing the people saving them. Others say that this might influence patients to not sign up for organ donations.

The number of such donations rose from 268 in 2003 to at least 605 in 2006, the Post reported and these numbers are rising.

"It's starting to go up exponentially," said James Burdick, who leads organ-donor efforts at the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees organ procurement, and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, which accredits hospitals, have taken a firm stand on this, requiring all hospitals to decide whether to allow the practice.

The approach, known as "donation after cardiac death," usually involves patients who have suffered brain damage, such as from a car accident or a stroke. After family members have made the decision to discontinue a ventilator or other life-sustaining treatment, organ-bank representatives talk to them about donation.

If it is decided that the patient will donate, a transplant team waits nearby so surgeons can begin removing organs soon after the heart stops. Because the heart can sometimes restart spontaneously, doctors wait a few minutes before allowing the surgeons to begin.

In the early 1970s things changed as brain death became the standard for pronouncing death. Surgeons began keeping the donor's body functioning with life-support machinery until transplantation could begin.

Most doctors wait five minutes after the heart stops before pronouncing patients dead. But doctors at some hospitals wait three minutes, others two. In Denver, surgeons at Children's Hospital wait 75 seconds before starting to remove hearts from infants, to maximize the chances that the organs will be useable.

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