The Undead Provides for a Controversial Listen

March 15, 2012

Dick Teresi’s controversial diatribe is called The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers – How Medicine is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death, and it is clear from the very first lines that he is strongly opposed to the process by which “living cadavers” are pronounced brain-dead and surreptitiously parted out to waiting organ recipients. He opens with a scene in a hospital in which a woman who “looks as if she had been put to sleep by a wicked queen in a fairy tale” is about to be pronounced brain-dead. He describes the woman, whom he calls Fernanda, in romantic prose, noting her dark lashes, delicate legs, and signs of life (her chest rising and falling). He then goes on to detail a scene in which seemingly archaic practices are used to determine her legal death. But is his scathing denunciation of the practice a provocative foray into the seedy underbelly of organ harvesting or is he relying on mere sensationalism to sell his audio book?

Although Teresi clearly spices up the narrative with descriptive language better suited for a novel than a scientific study, he address an issue that many people remain uncertain about: is brain-death tantamount to actual death? Most readers will vividly recall the case of Florida woman Terri Schiavo, who fell into a persistent vegetative state after suffering from a heart attack in 1990. However, it was the media controversy surrounding having her removed from life support that made national headlines. For seven years her husband fought to turn off the machines keeping her alive while her parents argued that she might still return to a state of consciousness. After fourteen appeals her husband won and the feeding tube was removed. This case aptly highlights the issue at the heart of Teresi’s audio book: who decides whether these people are legally alive or dead?

Teresi taps an army of sources in his quest to get answers about the science behind declaring a person brain-dead and how organ transplants play a role. In his search for information he talks to brain-death experts, coma doctors, undertakers, and organ transplant surgeons (amongst other experts). He also makes a point of speaking with patients that have recovered from comas and doctors that have saved patients from having their organs harvested (keeping them alive in the process). What he really seems to be poking at is the moral implication involved. If someone is breathing and eating (albeit via machines rather than on their own) aren’t they technically still alive? And if so, doesn’t the medical profession have a responsibility to keep them alive?

As if to illustrate his assertion that the medical community is involved in some sort of nefarious organ-harvesting scheme, several reviewers from the medical field have denounced his book, calling it untrue and overly dramatic. You almost need a glass dry erase board to chart the he said/she said nature of the arguments involved. But there’s no denying that the issue is complex and that there are passionate parties both for and against declaring brain death and allowing organs to go to patients whose legal status is not in question. At the very least, listeners are in for a roller coaster ride with this audio book; just take it with a grain of salt since the author’s motives have definitely been brought into question by the medical community.

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