Joe Hernandez was in his fourth year of medical school, at UCSF. He had plans to go into one of the least lucrative branches of medicine there is: primary care.
Then he ran into some misfortune. Last week the thirty year-old wound up at SF General – the hospital that he had just finished training at – in critical condition. A brawl broke out at a nightclub downtown, and when police arrived they found several people with minor injuries, and Hernandez unconscious on the floor with a head injury consistent with having been struck on the head with a blunt object.
“I was one of his teachers,” says Andre Campbell, M.D., a trauma surgeon at General. “He really was an outstanding student. It’s a tragedy. But in the midst of all that, what an amazing thing that his family did.”
Hernandez’s family decided to donate his organs – a procedure that many people believe in, but few carry out. Last year, only ten patients at SF General became organ donors. According to the California Transplant Donor Network (CTDN) nearly 21,000 people are awaiting organ transplants in California alone.
“Our first thing is to preserve life,” says Campbell. “A lot of patients die in the field or die downstairs and we’re not able to get to the point where we would have that conversation with the family.” When the conversation does come up, the doctor will call CTDN, which has organ donation counselors on call. When the counselor arrives, the doctor leaves the room, and won’t return until the counselor has left.
“We have,” says Campbell, “this thing called ‘separation'”
It’s a procedure that’s emotionally complicated for both the families that agree to it, and the surgeons who carry it out. For example: In a withdrawl of support organ donation, one team of medical officials will stay with the living patient until their heart stops. After death, a second and entirely different team arrives. One crew handles the living, and one crew handles the dead.
“I’ve been involved in many of the decisions,” says Campbell. “People die here all the time. But – like think of that young girl and her family down in Tucson. Her family made a decision for her to help other people. It’s simple act. Which is very complicated. It really is an amazing thing.”