Who decides whether to harvest a John Doe's organs?

Houston Chronicle | Cindy George

A presumed homeless man was airlifted on March 14 to Memorial Hermann Hospital for emergency treatment, but despite doctors' best efforts, the man was close to death by the next morning.

As medical officials awaited confirmation of brain death, they notified LifeGift - the Houston area's organ procurement organization - about a potential donor with a healthy heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and pancreas.

But LifeGift could not identify the man nor locate family members who could approve the organ donation. With little time to spare, the nonprofit turned to the rarest of options - filing an emergency petition on March 15 in Harris County Civil Court, citing the need to harvest organs within 24 hours. Harris County Judge Erin Lunceford granted the request in less than an hour, authorizing the release of the man's body, tissue and organs.

The decision has drawn questions from medical ethicists, with one likening the court-ordered anatomical gift to "body snatching."

"I have never heard of a court authorizing the taking of an organ where there's no evidence one way or the other about what the dead person would want," said William Winslade, who teaches medical ethics at the University of Houston Law Center.

The man collapsed Monday morning in a Houston parking lot and was taken to Memorial Hermann Southwest, then transferred to Memorial Hermann Hospital. One person initially claimed to be the man's nephew and identified the patient as "Cruz Alvarado," a homeless individual with relatives in Guatamala.

But the person later recanted, saying he was just a friend and could not confirm any personal information. Memorial Hermann officials never found any identification, nor could they verify a name or birth date for the John Doe.

The Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which establishes Texas' rules for organ, tissue and body donation, states that if an agent of the person who could have made the donation before death is not available, then six categories of relatives, listed by priority, may be considered.  Continue reading

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