Organ donation process subject to influence of family members

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 11:25 p.m. MST

This was the case for Hedy Rossmeissl, whose husband, Paul, died in 2006 from a bicycle accident at the age of 54. She said members of an organ procurement organization helped her and her daughter through the difficult process.

"They were very helpful in telling us what that was all about and how things would work," Rossmeissl said. "They were great at guiding us through what was going to happen."

She said they made it clear that Paul was a registered donor and that they had a legal right to transplant his organs, all the while remaining respectful.

"They explained that Paul was a very good candidate," she said. "I felt that's what he would have wanted so I was supportive of the donation."

It is important that the family is well aware of the wishes of the loved one and that they fully understand what it means to be a donor, Pitman said.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding on the part of surviving family members," she said. "In that moment people are so stressed that I don't think they often hear what's being said and they don't really grasp the full concept of it."

Often, if family members are upset or contradicting the wishes of their loved one it just takes professionals to help smooth things over, McDonald said.

"We tell the families that there actually is a fair amount of time to decide," he said. "This is not a decision that has to be made in 10 minutes."

Some family members carry the misconception that if their loved one is an organ donor, then he or she will incur costs and not receive proper medical care, which is not the case, Pitman said.

Legality and morality

McDonald said in Utah that signing to be a donor through a driver's license application or other means is considered to be legally binding and that his organization will honor the wishes of the deceased.

The revised uniform Anatomical Gift Act of the Utah health codes states that "in the absence of an express, contrary indication by the donor, a person other than the donor is barred from making, amending or revoking an anatomical gift of a donor's body or part."

Pitman's time as a nurse, mostly in the ER, gave her the chance to see firsthand something else taking place. Family members would succeed in stopping the organ donation process, even if their loved one was a designated donor, she said.

"Hospitals will generally go with what the surviving family members want, because they are the ones who can sue," Pitman said.

There is also a moral aspect to the issue, she said.

"Everybody has the right to be an organ donor and also to not be one," she said. "But it's that person's decision. It should never be the surviving family members. They should honor and respect what their loved one wanted. To me, dishonoring the wishes of your family member is the ultimate in selfishness."

Taking the proper steps both before and after the death of a loved one can make the process rewarding and help bring about something positive, Pitman said.

"Organ donation is an option to make something good come out of something tragic," she said. "A lot of people will take comfort in that."

There was indeed some comfort for Rossmeissl, as she knew her husband was responsible for saving multiple lives.

"Three people received new life because of his organs," she said. "I think he would have been happy to see that other people ended up with a better life because of him."

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