By Jonquil Frankham

CALIFORNIA, November 6, 2008 ( – A San Francisco surgeon is undergoing trial for allegedly hastening the death of a terminally ill patient to harvest his vital organs.

The case against Hootan Roozrokh is believed to be the first of its kind brought against an American transplant surgeon.

Rosa Navarro, the patient’s mother, successfully filed suit against the hospital where the patient died and received $250,000 in compensation. Now the District Attorney’s office is pressing charges against the 34-year-old surgeon for “dependent adult abuse, administering a harmful substance and prescribing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose.”

Roozrokh is also being charged with giving the 25-year old Ruben Navarro an antiseptic called Betadine, normally administered to an organ donor after death, via feeding tube to the stomach. Some commentators suggest the antiseptic was ultimately responsible for the patient’s death.

Roozrokh attempted to induce what is known as “cardiac death,” a new criteria for determining “death,” by delivering abnormally high doses of painkillers in order to retrieve vital organs from Ruben Navarro. “Cardiac death” is distinct from “brain death,” an older criterion for determining death that requires a cessation of all brain function prior to harvesting vital organs.

Toronto physician and LifeSiteNews medical adviser Dr. John Shea, MD, FRCP (C), says that in order to determine if a patient meets the “cardiac death” criteria the patient’s respirator is removed while the heart is still beating.

“If the heart stopped beating within an hour, the surgeon waited two to five minutes before taking out the organs. If the heart had not stopped beating within an hour, the patient would be returned to a hospital bed to die without any further treatment,” writes Dr. Shea.

On January 29, 2006, Ruben Navarro stopped breathing on his own, and was put on a respirator. On February 3 he still had not recovered consciousness, though his mother claimed she saw “signs of recovery.”

Medical staff then removed Navarro to the operating room and withdrew his respirator, claiming that hospital policy required them to “pull the plug” after five days on life support without patient recovery. Navarro continued to live, however, and Dr. Roozrokh, is reported to have then told nurses, “Let’s just give him some more candy.” The patient was given high doses of morphine and Ativan to hasten death.

Navarro’s heart continued to beat, and after one hour his organs were no longer considered useable. He was removed from the operating room and died several hours later.

Besides the ambiguity surrounding the actual moment of death, Dr. Shea writes that harvesting organs at either the point of brain death or cardiac death creates a conflict of interest on the part of the attending physician and fosters a “utilitarian” approach to life and death.

According to California state law, in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest, transplant surgeons cannot direct the care of potential donors while the patient is still in treatment. In this case, however, sources have reported to police that, contrary to that requirement, Dr. Roozrokh was directing the administration of drugs to Mr. Navarro while in the operating room.

Writing about the “utilitarian rationale” behind the invention of the “brain death” criterion, Shea says that “it was no longer the interest of the dying to avoid being declared ‘dead’ prematurely, but the community’s interest in declaring a dying person dead as soon as possible.” Shea’s criticisms would also apply to the “cardiac death” criterion.

The utilitarian approach to life and death that is increasingly pervading the organ donation industry is obvious from an article published this October by two Oxford scholars, which suggests that, rather than ensuring that brain death and cardiac death are indeed true death, “we could abandon the dead donor rule,” as LifeSiteNews reported.

“We could for example, allow organs to be taken from people who are not brain dead, but who have suffered such severe injury that they would be permanently unconscious, like Terry Schiavo, who would be allowed to die anyway by removal of their medical treatment,” wrote Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and neonatologist and Oxford graduate student Dominic Wilkinson.

Bioethics International writes that the Roozrokh case “is likely to raise uneasiness among potential organ donors and could prompt doctors to shy away from a somewhat controversial practice of retrieving organs before a patient is brain dead.”

See related coverage:

Shock: Oxford Neonatologist Says Time Has Come to Consider “Mandatory Organ Donation”

Organ Transplant Doctor Investigated in Non-Heart Beating Donation Case

Mother Alleges Doctor Murdered Her Handicapped Son to Harvest His Organs

Charges Brought against Transplant Doctor Accused of “Hastening” Patient’s Death