Medical Ethicist Explains Organ Transplant Dilemma - New York News

Medical Ethicist Explains Organ Transplant Dilemma

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CAMDEN, N.J. -

Sarah Murnaghan may have only weeks to live. Tuesday morning that fact became clearer than ever to her family. According to Sharon Ruddock, Sarah's Aunt, "This morning she woke up and her lips were blue and she was very gray."

Doctors were able to stabilize the 10-year-old, but the question now: for how long? That's why Sarah's parents want the HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, to lift the age restriction that won't allow Sarah to receive an adult lung. Right now only children 12 and older qualify.

According to Sharon Ruddock, Sarah's Aunt, "What we want is for their policy to change so they don't discriminate against children because of age."

Weighing in on the ethics of the case is Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, Medical Ethicist at Cooper University Hospital, "I think it's wrong, I do. I think it's wrong because I think we should go by sickness, because we can use the lobe of a lung from an adult to transplant to a child, even if potentially that income won't be quite as good..."

Sarah's family wants the age policy to be lifted for all children, immediately, so the sickest kids, like Sarah, can compete with adults to get a lung. But even that action would cause an ethical dilemma, according to Dr. Mazzarelli.

"If I'm Kathleen Sebelius, I think I acknowledge there's a problem with the system, and I don't think I make an exception for who this little girl is, as much as I would love to tell you that I would."

She's a little girl with a sweet innocent face. How could anyone choose to let her die?

And Dr. Mazzarelli agrees, "I believe she should be in that system with adults, particularly because when you look at a lot of those adults, it's through actions of their own such as smoking, that they're in the need of having a transplant, vs. a 10 year old who did nothing and needs that lung."

But as unfair as the situation may seem for Sarah, suspending the current policy while it's under review may not be fair either-- according to this medical ethicist.

"The lives we're not talking about are the people who don't get a lung, because we've changed the rules to allow these certain individuals in, right? We have to be careful that we don't so focus on the names that we know, that we don't think about the names that we don't know."

Certainly, Sarah's name and story are now familiar locally, and increasingly, nationwide.

Dr. Mazzarelli elaborates, "It becomes very seductive to want to give that resource out to the face that you know needs it versus thinking about what's the most fair system."

Dr. Mazzarelli does agree the current organ donor policy needs to be reviewed. But he says that process should happen first, before any changes are made.

"We have to look back at why that rule was made, what technology has changed since that point, and I think it's something that you can probably do in a fairly timely manner, but you really have to think about the overall impact when you start making exceptions to a system that's already set up."

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