Thanks to our friends at the Free Grace Broadcaster, Georgia Right to Life, HALO-voice, Life Guardian Foundation, Truth About Organ Donation, Celebrate Life Magazine, Crisis Magazine, American Thinker, and The World View, this site is gaining more subscribers daily. So, Chris Bogosh and I - Heidi - want to take a moment to welcome you all and give you a behind the scenes look at how this all got started.
As we detail in our book, Harvesting Organs and Cherishing Life, I trained as an anesthesiologist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital during the late 1980s. Late one afternoon in my first year of residency, in 1989, I reported for night call duty and was asked to go up to the ICU and prepare an organ donor for surgery. By this time, I had pre-op’d many patients, but an organ donor was something new for me. I didn’t want to look stupid, so I casually asked the attending anesthesiologist, “An organ donor? Anything different I should know?” He laughed, which was horrifying then and more so now, “Just be sure someone has actually declared him brain dead. The transplant team can be a little…eager.”
I went up to the ICU and reviewed the donor’s chart. He was my age at the time and had suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident. The neurologist had declared him “brain dead” and the family had consented to organ donation. As I went to examine the young man, I remember being relieved that his family was not there with him. Usually, anesthesiologists try to reassure the family that we will take excellent care of their loved one. But what do you say to the family when their son isn’t coming back?
I filled out the pre-operative assessment form, noting that he had a normal heart rate, blood pressure, and excellent blood oxygenation. He was warm and pink as I listened to his heart and lungs. I did my own quick review of some of the tests for brain death just to be sure, as he didn’t look dead. I pinched his nailbed and rubbed his sternum - no response. I checked his pupils, corneas, and oculo-cephalic reflexes - nothing.
I went back to the OR and reported my findings to the attending anesthesiologist who would be supervising me for the case. I told him my plan to give a balanced anesthetic with a narcotic to control pain and a neuromuscular blocker to keep the patient from moving during the surgery. “Better add an amnestic agent to block consciousness,” he said. I was confused. “But he’s dead,” I asked, “Why do we have to worry about consciousness?” My supervisor gave me a pointed look over his mask, “Just in case.”
So, I took a young man with stable vital signs and a beating heart to the operating room to have his organs removed. The process was no different from the many other patients I had brought down on a ventilator from the ICU for surgery. He responded to incision and sternotomy - sawing open the breastbone - just like anyone else. At one point his blood pressure didn’t normalize after additional narcotic, making me wonder if awareness was the issue. I gave the amnestic drug to block consciousness, like my supervisor had recommended, and his blood pressure came down immediately.
I remember being very confused by all this when the surgeon looked at me over the drape. “You can inflate the lungs one more time and then disconnect everything, we’re done with you.” I think I stared at him long enough that he may have had to say it twice, but I did as he asked. I disconnected the ventilator, turned off all the drips, and walked away without saying a word.
I went on to have a busy night on call, slept the next day, and jumped right back into the fast-flowing stream of medical training after that. I never did another organ harvest anesthetic, (These are usually given to the newbies, since ‘what can go wrong? After all, the patient is “dead” already.’) though I did give anesthesia for many organ recipients since UW-Madison is a busy transplant center. After my training, I practiced for one year as an operating room anesthesiologist, realized that I missed talking to my patients, and entered full time pain management practice.
Later, in 2006, my husband, Darrel, was diagnosed with a massive brainstem tumor. I remember looking at the MRI and thinking, “That’s the widow-maker right there!” We had young children and were uncertain as to how much time my husband had left, so I retired, used my buy-out to purchase some rental property, and began to focus on the important things in life. Praise God, 16 years later Darrel is still doing great! He has puzzled many a neurologist, as based on the MRIs there is no way that he should be alive, walking, and talking. I remember one neurologist at Mayo positively stamping her foot at his normal neurological exam: “You give me nothing!” she said. So now as I write about “brain death” I have reason to be a skeptic when it comes to the validity of all the tests. Clearly, there are things we still don’t understand about brain function.
Around 2012, a flurry of books and articles made their appearance questioning the brain death diagnosis. I saw Dr. Ed Payne (editor of the Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine) speaking at a conference about the fallacy of “brain death” and suddenly thought, “Dear God, what have I done???” I had taken a living, breathing young man, whose spirit was still in his body, and held him down with anesthetic drugs while surgeons removed his vital organs, causing his death. I don’t think I could live with myself today except for the open door of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. This is why every time I shine the light on the ethics of organ harvesting, I make it a point to tell every reader and viewer that forgiveness is available for all. After all, organ transplantation has been going on for over fifty years. Many people with the best intentions have participated, either as a medical professional, or in unknowingly giving a family member to be harvested while they were still alive. Many have received an organ, only to learn later that it was from a murder victim, and it’s not their fault that this was hidden from them.
In 2020, Rev. Jeff Pollard (editor of the Free Grace Broadcaster) ran a series on ‘Sickness’ and ‘Death and Dying’ and included some articles by Chris Bogosh RN. I immediately wrote a letter to the editor, thanking him for his work and including my stand on brain dead organ harvesting. Pastor Pollard connected me with Chris by email, and Chris wouldn’t let up until he had convinced me that we should write a book on the subject. So, over the next year, completely by email, we wrote Harvesting Organs and Cherishing Life: What Christians Need to Know About Organ Donation and Procurement. We finally did meet at a Faith and Medicine conference in Atlanta, the photo you see of us together was to commemorate our first meeting!
Chris and Heidi at the "Faith and Medicine Conference", Atlanta, Georgia, February 2022
So, we want to send out a big ‘thank you’ to you, our readers and viewers! Your interest and encouragement are helping us get the word out on behalf of the defenseless organ donor. Protecting organ donors is a subject much neglected, even by the church and the pro-life movement. As a result, even churched families are ill-equipped and unprepared when a loved one becomes seriously ill, and medical ‘experts’ approach them with the proposal of considering organ harvest. Because fifty years of debate amongst medical professionals has not changed the grievous practice of removing organs from very ill, but still living people, we are exposing unethical organ procurement practices to the public. With your help, we can bring this discussion into the public square and protect vulnerable people at the end of life. So, keep sharing and responding to our articles! We read all your emails and always appreciate your insights and news tips. Check back for new upcoming events and website features: we hope to have a ‘Survivors’ page soon, celebrating the many people who were given a diagnosis of brain death, and lived to tell the tale!
Heidi and Chris