UCSF medical student Joe Hernandez was one of the approximately ten patients a year at SF General who donate their organs to other people.

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.”

Heather Smith

Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow...

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11 Comments

  1. Joseph was an amazing person. I hope that the lives he has saved can feel his love and compassion with them.

  2. It’s not as simple as just “helping others.”

    When actual death of a loved one happens, it’s instinctively horrific to pull their body apart.

    I would HATE to “harvest” my loved one even if to save someone else. I just can’t send them to the next world in pieces.

    It’s blasphemy and horrendous to deal with.

    1. For me, the horror would be in being brain dead and not being provided an opportunity to save others. To have your death be what provides life to others is to provide meaning to an otherwise sad event.

  3. I disagree. It is a brave and courageous thing to do, in part precisely because it is so difficult. When I die, I am not going to need my corneas. Please, please let someone else see because of me. When my father died, my step-mother had an opportunity to donate his organs and she didn’t take it. I’m not angry with her but it was one of my father’s strongest wishes and it upsets me that it wasn’t honored just because of her discomfort. Moreover, it would have been the only way for me to make sense of his senseless death: because of it, other people could live. It is truly, literally, giving of one’s self in a way we cannot do in life.

  4. G: you need to realize it’s the 21st Century. Time to wake up and smell reality. Your attitude is selfish, blasphemous, and horrendous. Refusing to help others based on some Bronze Age superstitions? Disgusting.

  5. If more people were as generous as Joe Hernandez, we wouldn’t have over 50% of Americans waiting for organ transplants dying each year. Most of these deaths are needless. Americans bury or cremate 20,000 transplantable organs every year. There are now over 110,000 people on the National Transplant Waiting List.

    There is a simple way to put a big dent in the organ shortage – give donated organs first to people who have agreed to donate their own organs when they die.

    Giving organs first to organ donors will convince more people to register as organ donors. It will also make the organ allocation system fairer. People who aren’t willing to share the gift of life should go to the back of the waiting list as long as there is a shortage of organs.

    Anyone who wants to donate their organs to others who have agreed to donate theirs can join LifeSharers. LifeSharers is a non-profit network of organ donors who agree to offer their organs first to other organ donors when they die. Membership is free at http://www.lifesharers.org or by calling 1-888-ORGAN88. There is no age limit, parents can enroll their minor children, and no one is excluded due to any pre-existing medical condition. LifeSharers has over 14,400 members, including 1744 members in California.

    Please contact Dave Undis, Executive Director of LifeSharers, if your readers would like to learn more about our innovative approach to increasing the number of organ donors. He can arrange interviews with some of our local members if you’re interested. His email address is daveundis@lifesharers.org. His phone number is 615-351-8622.

    .

  6. Joe, we miss you so much. You’re constantly in our thoughts. Thanks for being an amazing person, you’ve definitely made in impact on all of our lives, especially mine. Love you!

  7. Joe helped me once when I visited SFGH. He was really kind with a warm smile. He would have been such a fabulous doctor, already was. What a sad way to die. I’m glad he will live on in others.

  8. First: While it is an important and life-giving gesture to donate organs, which I advocate for as a physician, i also believe that every person has the right to keep his/her organs after death – a decision which i won’t denigrate as selfish.

    More importantly: Joe was an incredibly dedicated, generous, and kindhearted man. I once worked with him in the UC Emergency Dept. After the shift, i remember thinking, despite working one of the busiest and most chaotic shifts that night, i never sensed the rush of time while working with Joe. He even spent time reassuring anxious parents of a child with an ear infection, without detracting from efficiently taking care of a critically ill infant with newly diagnosed rare heart failure.

    I hope that other health care providers and the families he touched as a student will carry on his inspiring attitude towards humanity.

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