Miracles as well as doubts

Posted on March 31, 2012 by

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In response to Catherine’s post, “How Dead is Dead?”:

I agree that use of bypass technology to provide “organ support” for brain dead patients is troubling. I heard the same NPR program and it caused me to vividly recall my own doubts about my daughter Maya’s status as a biomort. Maya was declared dead by a neurosurgeon. But with life support technology, she was still breathing with the aid of a ventilator. Her heart was still beating when we said our final goodbyes after I had given permission to donate her organs and tissues. Later, I learned she had been given blood transfusions to keep her organs viable, which only deepened my confusion.

My essay in the At the End of Life collection attempts to address the complexities of these issues which are both ethical and emotional. In many ways, technology has outstripped our ability to fully comprehend what “death” actually is and when it occurs. Several years after her death, I learned that my daughter’s brain stem was actually gangrenous at the time she was declared dead. There was no chance she could ever live. Nonetheless, she appeared alive with rosy cheeks and a rising and falling chest when I stood beside her for the last time.

Recently, I met the adult daughter of the man who received Maya’s heart. Olivia was only 8 years old when her father received my daughter’s heart. That gift extended his life for 14 years, years in which he saw his daughter graduate from high school and college. Olivia told me how very deeply she appreciated those added years with her father. “You will never know how many lives you changed for the better,” she told me, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Perhaps I never will. But Olivia gave me a glimpse that afternoon we met. And a great gift. She is pregnant with her first child, a girl. The baby will be named Maya Nicole, and is due in April. Twenty years after Maya’s death the gift of life her organs provided continues to ripple out into the world, ripples that find their way back to me.

So while I am troubled by the ethical questions raised by the technology that makes transplantation possible, in the end I believe saving lives – not only of recipients, but of their families – outweighs the moral dilemmas posed by technology that makes death a very gray area indeed. Living with moral ambiguity is part of the price we pay for medical advances that challenge our understanding as well as save our lives.

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