Denmark shocked by story of brain-dead donor’s recovery

By Michael Cook 

Carina Melchior

The world of organ donation in Denmark is in turmoil. A documentary was aired earlier this month which showed family members reacting in anguish to the news that their 19-year-old daughter was brain dead after a car accident, agreeing to donate her organs and allowing doctors to turn off her respirator. About 1.7 million viewers tuned in to the heart-rending drama.

But Carina Melchior did not die after her respirator was removed. She is now undergoing rehabilitation and may make a full recovery. About 500 people immediately removed their names from Denmark’s organ donor register.

Doctors at Aarhus University Hospital were embarrassed by the incident. “We are overjoyed that the young woman survived and that she is moving on after the accident,” Claus Thomsen, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said. “But we made a mistake underway and made the family believe that their daughter and sister would die.”

The hospital acknowledged that the question of organ donation should not have been raised as there were no unambiguous signs that brain death would occur. New guidelines have been introduced to ensure that relatives will only be approached about organ donation if no more treatment options are available. There was no risk of a false diagnosis of brain death, the hospital insisted.

But in more bad publicity for the hospital, a Danish tabloid profiled a man who had been falsely diagnosed as brain dead in 2002. He recovered quickly.

Aarhus University Hospital is investigating both cases, although it insists that the correct procedures were followed in the earlier case.

Carina’s family is now suing the hospital for damages. Her family’s lawyer claims that she keeps asking whether her doctors were trying to kill her. “Those bandits in white coats gave up too quickly because they wanted an organ donor,” Carina’s father told the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

Editor’s note. This first appeared at http://www.bioedge.org/index.php/bioethics/bioethics_article/10278