On being undead

Why I’m bailing from giving the gift of life
By JEFF INGLIS  |  October 24, 2012


I've been an organ donor since I first got a driver's license, more than 20 years ago. But Friday morning, after getting off the phone with the New England Organ Bank, I took a black marker and crossed out that line on my license. Here's my public declaration that I'm not interested in being an organ donor anymore. When my license needs renewal next year, I'll make sure the designation isn't there.

I haven't suddenly become cold-hearted or unwilling to be of use to others after my death. It's just that, as a direct result of reading Dick Teresi's The Undead (published by Pantheon earlier this year) I no longer have confidence in the medical establishment to accurately determine that I actually am dead. And after talking to spokespeople Laura Dempsey and Sean Fitzpatrick at the NEOB, I no longer have confidence that organ donors have professionals looking out for their interests, either.

What I found, and what Teresi, a science journalist with decades of experience (including being former top editor at Science Digest and Omni), documents comprehensively in his book, is a culture of defensiveness that attacks skepticism with assurances that lack any factual support.

When I mentioned that I had read Teresi's book, Dempsey's first reaction was to blurt out, "Oh no." (She later specified that she'd thought I was calling to do a pleasant feature about someone who was either about to receive an organ transplant or had just donated their organs after death.)

The bottom line is that she and Fitzpatrick didn't like the questions Teresi was asking — which is exactly Teresi's point. Fitzpatrick even called Teresi's tone "snarky and nasty," apparently without irony, as he labeled the work itself "sensationalistic and unserious" and said it "does a disrespect to the science of the topic."

My own reaction was that Teresi's were great questions — like "How do we know who is dead and who is alive?" and "If someone's heart can be restarted in someone else's body, how come it can't be restarted in its original body?" He assumed that there are good and solid medical answers to these questions, and set out to find them.

Fitzpatrick, however, viewed them as allegations that physicians are "willy-nilly killing individuals across the country," a charge he vigorously attacked. "Nobody wants the person dead," he told me.

I'll grant that. But Teresi searched for many years without locating anyone who could tell him — or demonstrate scientifically — how we can tell, with no exceptions, the difference between being living to being dead. That's what his book is about. It turns out that many people who are declared dead may not in fact be dead; some of them may even have the capacity to recover to more or less normal lives.

He says the medical profession makes little or no use of that information, and posits that the reason for this lack of interest is because of pressure from the organ-donation industry, which is seeking bodies that are legally dead but perhaps still have some vitality left somewhere, to provide new parts for others' worn-out, but still-hanging-on, frames.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , New England Organ Bank, the undead
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