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Cruel questions

By Kimberley Lindsay Wilson
web posted March 17, 2003

Jessica SantillanYou'd have to be made of granite to not be moved by Jessica Santillan's plight. The sweet-faced 17-year old weighed 85 pounds, and was desperately sick due to a birth defect that left her heart and lungs unable to function properly. Her one chance at life was a transplant. As anyone who's followed this story knows, that one chance was destroyed because the surgical team at Duke University Hospital gave her a heart and lungs that were not her blood type. That mistake is what led to her death. The hospital and her lead surgeon, Dr. James Jaggers--whose career, if not his life may be in tatters now-- have been remarkably upfront about accepting the blame for this tragedy. The family is expected to sue and no jury in America would fail to award them a fortune.

The media has treated this as simply a touching human interest story and except for syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, no-one has dug any deeper. There are questions about the Santillan story that should be answered but most of the media seems to think it would be too cruel to ask them. I think the American public, especially those who have loved ones who are sick and dying while waiting for organ transplants, deserve an answer to a couple of those cruel questions.

How did Jessica Santillan get to the top of the organ donation list?
The Santillan family paid a coyote (people smuggler) $5 000 to get Jessica and her mother to the United States three years ago. We don't know how the rest of the family got here. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are over 80 000 Americans waiting for a transplant. The average national waiting time is about five years. UNOS says that about sixteen people die everyday waiting for an organ that will not come in time. Organ matching is done via a computer search that allocates organs to the sickest person on the list in a geographic area. With all the people waiting for hearts and lungs how did Jessica get to the top of the list so quickly?

Where did the second heart and lungs come from?
After the botched transplant Duke University Hospital miraculously came up with a second set of organs for Jessica within days. Doctors now admit that Jessica had brain damage when the second transplant was done. They maintain that the damage was reversible but as sick as this teenager was, the odds of success with the second transplant probably weren't too high. Did some other patient on the organ list die today or yesterday because they didn't get those organs?

Who paid for the surgeries?
We are told that Jessica's surgery was 80 per cent paid for by her mother's insurance company and the rest of the money came from the charity set up in her name, Jessica's Hope Chest. We aren't told who was expected to pay for Jessica's post operative care. Had either of the transplants been successful she still would've had to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life. The cost of the medicine typically is more than $8 000 a year. Was the American taxpayer expected to pick up the cost?

What is the legal status of the Santillan family?
Jessica Santillan was apparently in the United States on a humanitarian visa but her family's status is unclear. They apparently wanted to take their daughter's body back home to Mexico for burial but were afraid to do so because they feared not being able to get back into the United States. Deporting the family seems harsh but remember, the INS threatened foreign born family members of victims of the September 11th attacks with arrest and deportation only weeks after the deaths of their loved ones. Will the laws be followed in this case or not?

Is it true that the Santillan family rejected requests to donate their daughter's organs?
I have no doubt that on the day Duke University Hospital authorities overrode the family's objections and removed the brain dead teen, from life support, her parents were in bad emotional shape. Asking them to donate Jessica's organs to someone else would've been a task I wouldn't have wanted and yet, organ donation is the reason the Santillans came here. They asked for and received the gift of a chance at life for their daughter and according to hospital officials they refused to return the favor to some other anxious family.

Right about now, someone is thinking that none of this stuff matters. A young girl is dead thanks to a careless mistake by the very people who were supposed to be saving her life. That's true but think about all the people who died while waiting for an organ today. They died without media attention and hoping in a system that is supposed to be fair and impartial. So here's one more cruel question: Was their faith betrayed?

Kimberley Lindsay Wilson Author of Work It! The Black Woman's Guide to Success at Work (Iuniverse, ISBN 059500122X, $8.95) & Eleven Things Mama Should Have Told You About Men (African American Images, September 2000, ISBN: 0913543691, $12.95) You can find her on the web at http://members.aol.com/wilsonhope/aaa/index.html or at the Black Writers Help Desk.

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