Posts tagged #death

How we honor a new organ donor


The double doors of the surgical intensive care unit opened into a hallway crowded with dozens of hospital employees. A hospital bed emerged, and we all fell silent.

Most beds roll out of the I.C.U. briskly, en route to radiology or an operating room, whirring with the beeps and blinks of monitors and the quick conversation of busy nurses.

This bed was different. It moved at a stately pace, and the team that accompanied it was changed as well. Nurses steered, but there was no chitchat this time. A tall anesthesiologist learned over the head of the bed to squeeze a bag valve oxygen mask with clocklike regularity.

People in street clothes trailed close behind the bed, unsure of where to look. These were the parents of the young woman in the bed, the one we had all come to honor.

This was an “honor walk” for a dying patient about to donate her organs to others.

To learn more, check out my new article at The New York Times.

Why it's getting harder to know if someone is dying

We tried our best, but CPR, an injection of epinephrine, and 360 joules of electricity all failed to restart Mrs. Melnyk’s heart. When everybody on the resuscitation team agreed that we could do no more, I said the words: 

“Time of death, 9:32.”

As we cleaned up, a young nurse began to tuck a clean white sheet around Mrs. Melnyk’s body—and then suddenly stopped. 

“Wait!” she shouted, pointing at the heart monitor. There on the screen, an electrical impulse registered and quickly disappeared, replaced by a flat green line. “It’s too soon to give up!” the nurse said. 

It turned out the young nurse had been fooled by a stray electrical discharge on an EKG machine. Together with her supervisor, we talked it through, and did not prolong the code blue.

That kind of confusion is getting more difficult to clear up, though. With newer technologies like PET scans and ECMO, the dividing line between life and death is getting harder to define. 

To read more, check out my new post in The Atlantic. 

Who should decide: a patient who has been suicidal or her legal guardian?


The team recommended a feeding tube. At first Sasha demurred, pointing to Liz’s refusal. But the psychiatrist clarified that Liz did not have decision-making capacity to refuse the procedure, so we relied upon Sasha. Sasha seemed to understand, and said she didn’t want Liz to starve. She asked what the procedure would entail, and what future steps in Liz’s care would involve. We discussed eventual transfer to a nursing home, and said we doubted Liz would ever care for herself again.

Then the conversation took an unexpected turn. 

Read my whole article at Scientific American guest blogs.

Posted on August 22, 2013 .