Patient Wakes from the Dead Right before Organs Were Going to Be Removed

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A St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center patient who was thought be to dead woke up just before doctors were about to remove her organs for transplant.

The state health department recently found the Central New York hospital’s 2009 care of Colleen Burns unacceptable, and St. Joseph's’s was criticized by a federal agency for not properly investigating the cause.

St. Joseph’s was fined $6,000 for the Burns case and another $16,000 for leaving a patient unattended before she fell and suffered a head injury in 2011. The $22,000 fine, which was levied last September, was the largest against an area hospital in a decade.

Burns was discharged from the hospital two weeks after the near-miss in the operating room. The 41-year-old North Syracuse resident has recovered from her overdose of Xanax, Benadryl and a muscle relaxant, according to her mother, Lucille Kuss.

The doctors never explained what went wrong at the hospital.

“They were just kind of shocked themselves," Kuss told The Post-Standard. “It came as a surprise to them as well."

Hospital offices thought Burns suffered “cardiac death” in October 2009 per documents obtained by The Post-Standard under the state Freedom of Information Law. Her family agreed to let doctors withdraw life support and remove her organs after they were told she was dead.

A review by the state health department found the following:

  • Staff skipped a recommended treatment to prevent the drugs the patient took from being absorbed by her stomach and intestines.
  • Not enough testing was done to see if she was free of all drugs.
  • Not enough brain scans were performed.
  • Doctors ignored a nurse's observations indicating Burns was not dead and her condition was improving.

“St. Joseph's goal is to provide the highest quality of care to every patient, every time," said hospital spokeswoman Kerri Howell in an email to The Post-Standard. The hospital works with Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network to follow strict policies and procedures for organ donation.

"These policies were followed in this case, which was complicated in terms of care and diagnosis," Howell said. "We've learned from this experience and have modified our policies to include the type of unusual circumstance presented in this case."

The hospital reportedly made no effort to thoroughly investigate what went wrong until it was pushed by the state to do so. The investigation did find, however, that St. Joe's had acceptable organ procurement policies and procedures.