The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

June 8, 2013

U.S. medical policies shouldn’t be overruled

By Lynn Saternow

---- — Sarah Murnaghan has to die. That was a pretty harsh message for the parents of 10-year-old Sarah to hear.

But it was one that was delivered by many medical people, including Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of U. S. Health and Human Services.

If you haven’t paid attention to the plight of the Philadelphia youngster, it goes like this:

Sarah has end-state cystic fibrosis. She has been in the hospital for months and has only a few weeks to live if she doesn’t receive a lung transplant. But there are very few available lungs from young people available for transplant and the success of adult lungs put into someone as young as Sarah is highly questionable.

That’s why the national policy of the United Network for Organ Sharing is that children under age 12 must wait for pediatric lungs to become available. Unfortunately, it was pretty much assured that Sarah wouldn’t live long enough for that to happen.

Then the unbelievable happened. Sarah’s family went before U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson and Baylson suspended the age factor in the country’s transplant rules for 10 days.

This was stunning because for a judge to overrule an established medical system creates what could become an enormous problem. Now everyone who doesn’t agree with their place on the transplant list could go to court seeking the same kind of advantage.

No matter how you shape it, when it comes to transplants, some people will die before they are eligible to receive the help they need.

There has to be some kind of ethical standards like the UNOS system that assures that rich and famous people don’t automatically jump to the top of the list and live, while regular people die. However, regular people like Sarah can’t jump to the top of the list, either.

What people really need to fight for is better funding for genetic studies and development of both embryonic and adult stem cell technology that can produce new organs. That would save a lot of people on transplant lists in need of a variety of organs.

Some people are against it because they say it’s like “playing God.” Really? But if there is a God who gave us the brains and the technology to do it, why shouldn’t and wouldn’t we?

I would rather have scientists dealing with these kind of problems than judges who are politically motivated to make decisions that might hurt others.

There is no guarantee that Sarah will find a match in time. But if she does and they transplant adult lungs into her, the chances of her survival are questionable. If she does die, what then? That means two people died because someone else – maybe even a 12-year-old – won’t get the lungs he or she needed to live because they went to Sarah.

Right here in Mercer County we have people on various transplant lists. Sadly, some won’t live long enough to receive them because there aren’t enough organs to go around.

And as disheartening as it is, there are children everywhere who will die much too young because of it. Regardless, there have to be rules on who gets those organs.

As harsh as the message is, until we find ways to actually produce artificial or genetically developed organs, it’s pretty clear – even children like Sarah Murnaghan will die.

The Herald’s Lynn Saternow writes this column each Saturday for the Opinion Page. He can be reached at