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Ethicist Needs Ethics Transplant


In an op-ed piece on MSNBC Arthur Caplan a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist suggested that Vice President Dick Cheney received a heart transplant because he was rich and influential.  Caplan implied, too, that Cheney at 71 was too old for a transplant and that the heart should have gone to a younger person.  I responded with this comment.

Up until today I had some respect for Dr. Caplan but upon reading his uninformed and arrogant musings on Vice President Cheney’s heart transplant and senior citizens, I not only lost all respect I find him pathetic and in need of an ethics transplant. 

I am a long time Democrat, a very vocal opponent of Mr. Cheney and everything he stands for and a transplant recipient who got a heart at age 68 and I’m neither rich nor influential yet I believe the former Vice President got his heart in the same fair and balanced manner in which I got mine.  In that sentence I just negated all of Caplan’s arguments.

Had Arthur Caplan taken a little bit of time to understand the donation/transplantation process he might have a different story.

As much as I dislike Dick Cheney he got his heart fairly and am convinced that his wealth and influence had nothing to do with it. The only discriminatory factor that prevailed is that you must be able to pay for a transplant whether privately or through insurance. Yes, that leaves a lot of people out of the mix but that’s another argument.  He was insured just as I was. Had we matched bank accounts I would have come out on the short end but it was insurance that paid not private wealth.

The United Network for Organ (UNOS) Sharing in Richmond, Virginia (a site I’ve visited many times, has Caplan?) is a U.S. government subcontractor that coordinates all organ transplants in the United States.  It has done so since its establishment under the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) in 1984.  Its computer system tracks and continually updates the national transplant list which includes nearly 114,000 Americans.  It is a very sophisticated process and it is blind.  The information in the system does not contain anyone’s name or rank or social standing or wealth it has medical information and the location for each patient.

Having been on the national waiting list I think I’m familiar with the process of how you get there and it is not easy.  First you must see a specialist in your disease at a transplant center where you are subjected to battery of tests to determine two things 1) are you a legitimate candidate for a transplant and 2) is it likely you’ll survive after the surgery.  If the physician determines you meet those criteria he or she presents your case to a hospital’s transplant committee and, if they agree, the patient’s information is sent to UNOS for listing.  Please note, you cannot get on the list unless a specialist physician certifies that you are dying, that a transplant is a last resort to save your life and that you will survive the surgery.

In the United States there are 58 Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs) they are the federally mandated groups that work with transplant centers  and UNOS to identify potential donors and then with families and hospitals to coordinate the recovery of the organ and its transportation to the site of the recipient.  They have no knowledge at any time of who the recipient is.

Once it is clear that there will a donor organ the process begins to match blood type, tissue, size and other factors.  The match must be as close as possible to in order to limit rejection of the organ by the host body (once transplanted rejection is further limited by powerful drugs). While the intent is to get the organ to the sickest patient, it doesn’t always work out that way because sometime the sickest patient is not a good match for the available organ.

Here’s an example.  I had my transplant done at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.  My heart came from South Carolina.  I don’t know all the details but here’s what likely happened.  First the heart was offered within the immediate area served by the OPO but there were apparently no good matches.  Then it was made available to outlying areas and they found me in an area that was in the jurisdiction of a different OPO altogether.  I was not the sickest (wasn’t even hospitalized) and certainly at age 68 was not the youngest, and I know I was not the richest but I was a match and I got the heart.  It is just as likely that the same thing could have happened for Mr. Cheney. 

It is also likely that had Cheney not gotten the heart, no one would because it wasn’t a match.  I doubt that someone else was deprived of an organ because Mr. Cheney got it.  Also, there is the question of distance.  An organ will only survive for a limited amount of time once removed from a body.  It must be transplanted as soon as possible.  Mr. Cheney was likely the best candidate within the range of the survivability of the organ. 

 And finally.  It may not be important to Dr. Caplan that those of us over 65 have a chance at getting a transplant and living several more years but it is to us.  How dare he imply that we seniors aren’t worth the time, money and effort to save.  His arrogance and lack of compassion reflects poorly on his ethical character.  How can the ethicist say that a certain segment of the population is “disposable.”  Is that ethical behavior?   Better unlock that ivory tower door Dr. Caplan.  Let some fresh air in.

Bob Aronson, a 2007 heart transplant recipient is the founder of Facebook’s 1700 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the writer of 110 blogs on donation/transplantation issues on Bob’s Newheart on WordPress. 

You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at bob@baronson.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.

 Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on http://www.organti.org This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.

If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have a PowerPoint slide show for your use free and for use without permission.  Just go to http://www.organti.org and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions.  This is NOT a stand-alone show, it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound.

 Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.

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