Science writer Teresi (Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—From the Babylonians to the Maya, 2002, etc.) claims that the rights of organ donors are being violated by the medical profession.
“In 2010,” writes the author, “there were an estimated 28,144 transplant operations in the United States”—with 111,530 candidates on the waiting lists as of June 2011. His stated purpose is to call attention to what he sees as a subtle shift in medical emphasis from saving lives to declaring patients dead prematurely in order to preserve their organs for the lucrative organ-transplant business. Like a real-life version of Robin Cook's medical thriller Coma, Teresi paints a grisly picture of organ harvesting and raises uncomfortable questions: Is the donor actually dead rather than at the point of death? Might he or she be revived given time and proper medical attention? Might the donor feel pain during the process of organ extraction even though seemingly brain dead? Citing reports of out-of-body experiences, the locked-in syndrome portrayed in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and evidence that comatose patients who are apparently unresponsive are sometimes fully aware of conversations held in their presence, Teresi expresses skepticism about the medical definition of brain death. The author searches out experts, including, among others, “undertakers, cell biologists, coma specialists (and those who have recovered from coma), organ transplant surgeons,” in an effort to penetrate the boundaries between life and death. “The unborn, fetuses, have plenty of political clout,” he writes. “No one speaks for donors,” and the press has abdicated its responsibility for investigative journalism. However, some of Teresi’s writing verges on sensationalism—e.g., his lurid account of modern executions.
A provocative, if one-sided, examination of important ethical issues and the still-unresolved question of what constitutes death.