April 10, 2012

One of the saddest stories we recently heard regarding a possible medical malpractice incident occurred in May, 2010 in the operating room of a major transplant hospital in the United States when a living liver donor died on the operating room table while giving the gift of life to his brother-in-law who needed a liver transplant in order to survive, due to circumstances that raise the spectre of whether medical malpractice contributed to his death.

We are hesitant to use the term “organ donor” in describing the man who made the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to help another human being in desperate need of a liver transplant because the phrase is too impersonal and too understated in the context of the altruistic compassion and utter selflessness of the man who tried to help save his brother-in-law on his wife’s 57th birthday. But we will use the term organ donor in referring to the man out of respect for the over 100,000 others in the United States who have donated kidneys, portions of livers, and other live organs that have saved lives and made the lives of organ recipients much better.

Did The Man Die Due To Medical Malpractice?

When the man was told that his brother-in-law was in dire straits due to his rapidly failing liver, he did not hesitate to step up to the plate to volunteer, without being asked, to be tested to see if he was a compatible liver donor. When the medical testing confirmed that he was a compatible living donor, he bravely took the next step by arranging to have a portion (60%) of his liver transplanted into his brother-in-law.

The donor was 56-years-old at the time of the transplant surgery and was believed by his wife to be in good health. Medical testing was done to confirm that the donor was a good candidate for the surgery and for the removal of a portion of his liver. As far as the donor’s wife knew, her husband was told that there was no reason why he could not undergo the surgery necessary to donate a part of his liver. Little did the wife know that a pre-operative EKG was abnormal (it showed that her husband may have had a previous heart attack) and what consideration was given to the abnormal EKG in the context of whether the transplant surgery should have proceeded.

The transplant team decided on using laparoscopic surgery in which the surgery is performed through three small incisions from which donors typically recover faster and with less pain than with the usual “open” surgery. A significant drawback from laparoscopic surgery is that the internal view is limited and therefore if excessive internal bleeding is encountered, it may be more difficult to determine and address the source of the bleeding.

That is what complicated the surgery on the liver donor in this case — a vein coming from his liver was partially torn during the laparoscopic surgery and then completed separated, causing serious bleeding. As the surgeons worked on the torn vein, other tears developed and other sources of bleeding were causing internal bleeding that the surgeons were unable to keep up with (a portable high-speed blood pump that could have helped was available but not brought into the operating room for some unexplained reason).

The transplant surgeons failed to activate the hospital’s “Massive Blood Transfusion Protocol” that may have helped provide the man with blood transfusions at a faster rate. The man died on the operating table two and a half hours after he first started to bleed from the torn vein, due to cardiac arrest caused by the excessive bleeding.

There have been more than 4,500 live liver donors involved in transplants in the United States over the last 25 years, including more than 200 at the same transplant center as where the man’s surgery was performed, with only three previous deaths of donors since 1999.


The ability to save and improve lives through the transplantation of human organs is one of the greatest triumphs of modern medicine. Very few transplant donors ever suffer any complications from their surgery, let alone die due to surgery. One of the reasons for such success is due to the procedures and protocols established by the transplant hospitals to provide pre-operative, intra-operative, and post-operative methods to insure the best possible outcome for the organ donors and organ recipients.

While procedures and protocols may not necessarily establish the standard of care required of the transplant team, the established procedures and protocols are evidence of the standard of care. When the established procedures and protocols are not followed or enforced, dire consequences, such as the death of the organ donor or the organ recipient, may result.

If you, a family member, a loved one, or a friend suffered injuries or losses due to possible medical malpractice in a hospital, in a medical office or clinic, or at the hands of another medical provider, you should promptly seek the advice of a medical malpractice attorney to answer your medical malpractice questions and to investigate your possible medical malpractice claim.

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