In October 2009, the St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse ruled a woman dead and, with the permission of the woman's family, prepared to remove her organs for donation. Then, as she was on the operating table, surrounded by doctors and hospital staff, the woman opened her eyes. She was alive.
Colleen Burns had overdosed from a combination of Xanax, Benadryl, and muscle relaxers several days before. The combination of drugs caused Burns to slip into a deep coma, which doctors at the hospital mistook for her being brain dead. The hospital staff notified Burns's family and prepared to remove her organs, according to document obtained by The Post-Standard under New York's Freedom of Information Law.
However, there were some warnings that Burns was not actually dead prior to her awakening in the OR; the day before the surgery was to take place, a nurse performed a reflex test on Burns's foot. Burn's toes curled downward. She also appeared to be breathing on her own, without the help of the respirator.
"Dead people don't curl their toes," said Dr. Charles Wetli, a nationally known forensic pathologist out of New Jersey. "And they don't fight against the respirator and want to breathe on their own."
The nurse reportedly warned doctors, but she was ignored.
The state health department found several other oversights by the hospital staff, including a lack of proper brain scans, a lack of drug tests, and, of course, the small issue of ignoring the nurse who said Burns was not actually dead.
When Burns awoke in the operating rooms, doctors realized she had been in a deep coma, and had not suffered “cardiac death,” as they initially determined.
"They were just kind of shocked themselves," Burns's mother, Lucille Kuss, told the Post-Standard. "It came as a surprise to them as well." Kuss also said the doctors offered no explanation as to how the mistake happened.
The hospital was eventually fined $6,000 for the incident and criticized by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for not launching any sort of internal inquiry until after the state launched an investigation. The hospital was also ordered to hire a neurologist to train staff on how to accurately diagnose brain death.
Tragically, Burns committed suicide 16 months after the incident. "She was so depressed that it really didn't make any difference to her," her mother said.
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