By ALICIA CHANG
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 5:21 AM
LOS ANGELES -- Allegations that a transplant surgeon tried to speed a patient's death to recover his organs could dissuade potential donors at a time when the national waiting list for critical organs keeps growing, some experts say.
"One of the biggest fears that people have about organ donation is that their death will be hastened if they're identified as a donor," bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania said Tuesday. "The transplant community has struggled mightily to allay the fears."
Any dip in the organ donation rate related to the case would likely have the greatest impact near its epicenter because organs are distributed regionally, Caplan said. The alleged crime occurred at a hospital in San Luis Obispo, on California's central coast.
There are about 97,000 people currently awaiting a transplant nationally.
Prosecutors on Monday charged transplant surgeon Hootan Roozrokh, 33, with prescribing massive amounts of drugs in an attempt to hasten the death of 25-year-old Ruben Navarro, who was physically and mentally disabled.
Navarro's organs were never retrieved because he did not die within the time when they would be viable for transplantation.
The case, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S., sent a chill through the transplant community.
The United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation's transplant system under a federal contract, called the case against Roozrokh "deeply disturbing."
State law and the network's rules prohibit transplant doctors from being involved in the treatment of potential organ donors before they are declared dead.
Dr. Goran Klintmalm, president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, said the negative publicity could scare away doctors from performing organ recovery because "they may be accused of wrongdoing." Klintmalm added that the case appears to be unique and that he has never encountered these allegations in his three decades of practicing transplant medicine.
Prosecutors allege that Roozrokh prescribed excessive morphine and the sedative Ativan to Navarro last year in the operating room of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. He was also accused of administering an antiseptic into Navarro's stomach.
Roozrokh, a surgeon at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, was working at the time on behalf of a local organ procurement group. His lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, said no crime was committed.
Navarro, who was born with a neurological disorder and had been living in an assisted care facility, was taken to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest. He was diagnosed with irreversible brain damage and placed on life support.
Kevin Chaffin, an attorney for Navarro's mother, Rosa, said the case chalked up to "predatory harvesting practices." Chaffin said Mrs. Navarro, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Roozrokh and others, never agreed to take her son off the respirator and consented to organ donation without knowing all the facts.
Roozrokh was charged with felony counts of dependent adult abuse, administering a harmful substance and unlawful controlled substance prescription. He faces up to eight years in state prison if convicted. He planned to surrender this week and post $10,000 bail.
Some transplant patient groups say the cases of surgeons crossing the ethical line are rare and that donors should have confidence their donation will be handled appropriately.
"By and large, physicians are upholding their oath," said Jackie Hancock, president of the National Foundation for Transplants.