Documentary stirs debate on organ donation

A severely ill girl miraculously recovered after her parents had agreed with doctors to donate her organs

A documentary about a girl who awoke from a coma after doctors thought she would die was a TV hit when it was shown last week on public broadcaster DR.

About 1.7 million people watched the documentary that followed the family of 19-year-old Carina Melchior after she was admitted to Aarhus University Hospital following a severe car accident.

Doctors assessed her chances of recovery as being very low and asked her family whether they would consider organ donation.

They agreed and Melchior was taken off her respirator, but several days later miraculously awoke and is now undergoing rehabilitation.

The family’s ordeal made for powerful viewing and the documentary, entitled 'Pigen der ikke ville dø' (The girl who refused to die), sparked a debate about when it is acceptable for doctors to suggest organ donation.

Organ donation can only take place after the clinical condition known as brain death, the irreversible end of all brain activity, has set in.

Doctors at Aarhus University Hospital apologised for asking parents of a critically ill girl if they would donate her organs before the girl was brain dead (Photo: Aarhus University Hospital)In Melchior's case, however, Aarhus University Hospital has acknowledged they made a grave error in diagnosis.

“We are overjoyed that the young woman survived and that she is moving on after the accident,” Claus Thomsen, the hospital’s chief medical officer, wrote in a press release. "But we made a mistake underway and made the family believe that their daughter and sister would die.”

In the press release, the hospital acknowledged that the question of organ donation should not have been posed as there were not clear signs that brain death would occur.

They added that they had implemented new guidelines to ensure that the conversation about organ donation would only happen if there were no more treatment options available and the brain’s function had either ceased or was expected to cease soon.

The hospital stated that there is no risk of a false diagnosis of brain death and stressed that people should not worry that their organs will be harvested unless they are actually clinically dead.

But today, BT tabloid ran the story of 34-year-old Jesper Bendixen, who in 2002 was wrongly assessed as brain dead by his doctor at Aarhus University Hospital.

His family was pressured to donate his organs and they agreed but Bendixen was then found to still be alive. He quickly recovered and is now on early retirement.

Aarhus University Hospital has launched an inquiry into both cases but stated that in the case of Bendixen, the correct guidelines were followed in regards to the diagnosis of brain death and this declaration to his family.

Following the broadcast of the documentary, concerns over organ donation lead to around 500 people withdrawing from the organ donor register.

Suprisingly, however, even more people were inspired to donate their organs according.

"Despite our fears that many people would opt out of the organ donor register, the opposite happened,” Bjørn Ursin Knudsen, a spokesperson for the national organ donor register, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

Normally there are few changes in the register, but since the airing of DR's documentary, more than 3,000 people have logged in to sign up or change their permissions.

“Only 500 left the registery. The rest we consider positive visits even though we can’t tell how many joined," Knudsen said. "Some changed the number of organs that can be taken in the event of brain death. Others made changes to ensure their relatives are consulted or are not involved.”

According to Stig Hedegaard Kristensen, the chairman of the kidney association Nyreforening, the many positive changes demonstrate that Danes support transplants and organ donation and the criteria of brain death.

“The documentary demonstrated the importance of knowing what you and your closest ones want if such a terrible situation such as Carina’s happens,” Kristensen told Jyllands-Posten. “The documentary raised the issue and led to people joining the organ register.”