Fri, Jun 13, 2008 - Page 7 News List

New York plan for organ ambulances sparks debate


An ambulance rushes to the scene of an accident and the paramedics prepare to assist the victim.

Behind them another ambulance rolls up, its paramedics ready to intervene if the patient dies. Their task is get the still-warm body ready to have organs removed to save another person’s life.

This system has been successfully in place in Spain for 19 years, but New Yorkers are uneasy about plans to launch a similar scheme in the city with a fleet of ambulances to help harvest fresh human organs.

About 18 people die each day in the US because of a lack of organs for transplant, according to Donate Life America (DLA), a non-profit group that encourages the public to donate organs.

Even though 90 percent of Americans polled favor donating their organs if they die, only 30 percent have taken the measures necessary to do so, the DLA said.

A group of doctors in New York want to change that. Armed with a US$1.5-million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, they are working on a system inspired by the Spanish model that would better match the supply and demand of human organs.

The system would improve management of the information on potential donors and create a fleet of ambulances that would send teams out to collect the organs of donors who die suddenly.

“We are trying to solve the problem of a large population of Americans who wish to be organ donors [and] the large number of people who die every year awaiting a transplantation that never occurs,” said professor Lewis Goldfrank, who heads the program.

Some, however, are raising objections.

“Even if it is done in Spain, Spain is not the United States,” said Michael Grodin, a specialist in health law and bio-ethics at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The US “does not have a health care system. We all know we have 45 million people without access to health care,” said Grodin, adding that Americans “are worried about the fact that they can get organ donation but they cannot get health care.”

“Declaring someone dead out in the field, when the person is either not decapitated or decomposed is a critical decision,” Grodin said.

The project’s goal is to send an ambulance to the scene of an accident and for the paramedics to do what they can to save the victim’s life. Without necessarily telling these paramedics, project administrators will order an ambulance in charge of collecting organs to the accident site. Its personnel will intervene only if the patient dies.

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