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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

Hold the Knife: Rethinking Organ Donation

My second cousin, a past president of the American Psychological Association, one day told me this unsettling story. One of her patients, an accident victim, had been brought into her Texas hospital with the very worst prognosis. His vital signs were absent: no heartbeat, no unassisted breathing. Machines were all that kept his body alive. Even his electroencephalograph (EEG) was flat. There was nothing there. He – if one could even still assign a personal pronoun – was brain- and body-dead. Lights on, no one at home.

As the transplant doctors clustered at the patient’s bedside, awaiting Julia’s release for him to be sliced and diced into juicy transplantable organs, my cousin told me that she had a strange misgiving. What if the patient was not truly beyond reclamation, and what appeared to be irreversible trauma were not in fact terminal? So she held off authorizing transection, and compelled the wannabe transplanters – vultures, she called them – to wait. Twelve hours later the apparently brain-dead patient was sitting up in bed, feeding himself, unassisted. If Julia had acceded to the vultures, her patient would have been broken down to thirty slimy organs on a slab.

It is for this reason, this occurrence, that I do not authorize any authority anywhere to take my organs in the event of what appears to be my death. Not that any organ in my body could possibly benefit anyone. My lungs are asthmatic, my veins sclerotic, my arteries in need of stents. My liver, in a phrase coined two centuries ago by British officers in the East India Company, curls up around the edges. But a card attached to my driver’s licence? Not signed, not attached. No no.

I realize I’m up against statistics here. Odds are (I’m told) that for every instance like this, many more cases will result in harvestable organs that save lives. But I’m reminded of that old argument that ten guilty people should go free to offset a single wrong conviction of an innocent person. Folks, don’t be bullied: recall the vultures. Even after death, your body remains your own.

William Atkinson lives in Calgary and walks, cycles, and drives with extreme caution.

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