A 21-year-old Columbus man who had been declared legally dead but was on artificial life support had his organs harvested under court order yesterday over his family’s objections.
The case marked the first time that Lifeline of Ohio has gone to court over a donation, an executive with the organ-procurement agency said yesterday.
Elijah Smith said he wanted to be an organ and tissue donor when he applied for a driver’s license in September. But his family didn’t find that out until he was declared brain dead by doctors on July 4 after being struck in a hit-skip crash while riding his bicycle the day before.
After officials at Grant Medical Center notified Lifeline of Ohio of Smith’s wishes, Pamela and Rodney Smith said they didn’t want their son’s organs harvested. On Sunday, Pamela Smith, of the East Side, wrote to Grant and to Lifeline to say that the family did not consent to harvesting his organs because Elijah did not fully understand the choice he had made.
“We do not want our son to die like this,” she wrote. “We do not want our son to be an organ donor.”
Grant officials deferred to the family and told Lifeline that a court order would be needed to proceed with the organ harvest. On Wednesday, Lifeline filed a complaint in Franklin County Probate Court seeking the right to proceed.
“Under the circumstances, no one — not even his family — can undo what he did,” Lifeline’s attorney wrote in a motion.
Ohio law bars anyone other than the donor from amending or revoking an organ donation, Dorrie Dils, Lifeline’s chief clinical executive, said yesterday.
“We are obligated and responsible for fulfilling that wish to be a donor,” she said.
Common Pleas Judge Guy Reece, who agreed to hear the case in the absence of Probate Judge Robert Montgomery, agreed and signed the order on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s not an easy decision, but … Ohio law provides that this is the way the decision should have been made and that’s what I did,” Reece said. “I followed the law.”
Smith’s mother said yesterday that she was stunned and enraged that Lifeline had “gone behind our backs … to get my son’s organs.”
“The person who needed those organs more than anything was Elijah,” she said. “And brain death was just a convenient way to facilitate the donation of those organs.”
Pamela Smith said she saw signs of recovery in Elijah. But if he wasn’t going to wake up, she wanted his death to come after the respirator was turned off, not after his organs were harvested.
“We were hoping he would continue breathing,” she said. “If he did not continue breathing, then that would be how we would finally accept the fact that he was dead.”
If Elijah hadn’t been an organ donor, he wouldn’t have been on artificial support at all after being declared brain dead on July 4, Dils said. The respirators and other machines were there to keep his body working and keep his organs healthy for donation, not to prolong his life, she said.
Smith was riding his bicycle from work to his home on E. 11th Avenue about 4 a.m. on July 3 when he was struck near Woodland and Woodward avenues on the North Side. He was a new father; his son, King, was born on June 22.
Columbus police said they have recovered the Volkswagen that struck him but have not charged anyone.
Families have objected to organ donations before, but Lifeline has not had to go to court to force a donation, Dils said. Representatives of the United Network for Organ Sharing and Donate Life America, both national organizations, said they had never heard of a case where a court order was used to recover organs from a donor.
Dils said she was saddened by the case. Lifeline and other organ-donation agencies push for people not only to register but to talk to their families about their decision.
“Our second statement after encouraging people to donate is to always tell your family,” Dils said.
Dils would not say how many organs were taken from Elijah, but she said lives were saved as a result of his donation. Nearly 120,000 people are on the national waiting list for organs, and 18 people a day die waiting for a transplant, she said.
“In the end, Elijah had the opportunity to save other lives. And I hope in time, his family will see him as the hero he is.”
By Allison Manning The Columbus Dispatch