Originally created 02/25/03

Brain transplant needed



Too little, too late, our hearts go out to the family of Jesica Santillan. The death of the beautiful 17-year-old girl is an unbridled tragedy - made more so by the fact that merely checking blood types may have prevented her death.

When she received a new heart and lungs that were of the wrong blood type, not even a second transplant could save her. She died Saturday at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., that tried desperately to save her.

Adding to the tragedy is the inexplicable decision by the family not to have Jesica herself be an organ donor.

At the same time, our hearts also go out to the surgeon involved, Dr. James Jaggers. A doctor so skilled and sought-after that he is known as the "baby fixer," the remorseful 39-year-old pediatric surgeon - who has given up his holidays in the past to perform free operations for children in Nicaragua - will no doubt be haunted by this episode for the rest of his life.

Moreover, while it does not at all mitigate the outrageous error, the doctor has accepted full responsibility: Before reportedly breaking down, Jaggers was said to have told Jesica's family, "Duke didn't make a mistake. I did."

It is small consolation to a grieving family. But how refreshing and courageous of Dr. Jaggers not to attempt to deflect responsibility.

Consider, too, the perilous position of such a man. Despite the sky-high expectations of patients and their lawyers, doctors are only human - and there are no guarantees either in life or in life-saving.

Of course, medical professionals are held to account for their mistakes, as they should be. But one must ask in this particular case: Who should hold this doctor accountable?

The reflex action in this country is that a lawyer should. And there can be no doubt that the lawsuits will flow like a raging river.

But guess what: The Santillans are illegal immigrants. They paid smugglers to get them into the United States from their home near Guadalajara, Mexico.

It may sound harsh, but what standing should they have to sue when the operation goes wrong? What kind of system allows people to sneak into this country in order to access our best medical care, some of the best in the world - perhaps to the detriment of legal residents who also need help - and then make full use of our legal system to get rich when things go bad?

How just is that? And how can our medical system, or the insurance system that is supposed to protect it, deal with the incalculable risks that carries?

Our doctors and hospitals are not only supposed to be perfect - and, in the minds of lawyers, guarantee happy outcomes - but they also are being forced to be all things to all people of all countries.

Most Americans don't need heart transplants; our hearts are big and full and strong.

It's our brains that need a little help.