By Hilary White

  SAN LUIS OBISPO, March 9, 2007 ( – The Los Angeles Times reports that San Luis Obispo police and the Medical Board of California are investigating the conduct of a transplant doctor suspected of hastening the death of a man on respirator in order to harvest his organs more quickly. Organ donor agencies are worried that the investigation could hurt the public’s perception of organ donation.

  Dr. Hootan Roozrokh, a transplant surgeon with Kaiser Permanente’s defunct kidney transplant program, is being investigated for allegedly having ordered excessive doses of pain medication to speed the death of Ruben Navarro. Police said Mr. Navarro had been “near death” when he was taken to hospital from a long-term care facility. He was put on a respirator and when they were told he was dying, his family agreed to allow his organs to be harvested.

  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, 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.

  Mr. Navarro had been taken off life support for 30 minutes and when he did not die, Dr. Roozrokh is reported to have told nurses, “Let’s just give him some more candy.” He died early the next morning and according to police, his organs were not retrieved.

  The organ donation method being employed in the case, “donation after cardiac death” (DCD), is coming under increasing criticism by ethicists. DCD involves a person on a ventilator who may have measurable brain function but is declared by the attending physician to have no hope of recovery. Doctors remove ventilation and wait for the heart to stop beating. Death is pronounced after the heart has stopped for five minutes and the organs are harvested by waiting surgical team.

  Police told the LA Times that this case was unusual, “I don’t think we’ve run across this in our lifetime.” But the procedure, also called non-heart beating organ donation (NHBD), is being adopted by organ donation agencies, including Ontario’s Trillium Gift of Life Network.

  Dr. Moira McQueen, President of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Centre told in June 2006 that the time required in DCD procedures, five minutes after the cessation of cardiac activity, is “frankly . . . not nearly enough.” She noted there have been cases of auto-resuscitation after more than five minutes without a heart beat.

  Dr. Timothy Pruett, president-elect of the United Network for Organ Sharing, told the LA Times that news such as this can frighten the public away from organ donation. “We have to guarantee to the public that we’re not going to go out and kill people to get their organs,” he said, comparing the case to science fiction horror stories in which “ghoulish docs are out pulling the plugs on these poor defenseless people, trying to snatch their organs.”

  The investigation is nearly finished and results will be given to the district attorney’s office in two or three weeks. Dr. Roozrokh was temporarily suspended and was reinstated by Kaiser in January. Neither surgeon was attempting to recover the organs on behalf of Kaiser.

  Read related coverage:
  Controversial Organ Donation Method Begins in Canada – Organs Extracted 5 Minutes after Heart Stops