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Family Taking Steps Toward Malpractice Suit

Feb 24, 2003 |

Just a day after her death, questions have arisen as to how teenager Jesica Santillan was offered mismatched organs in the first place.

As her family struggled to cope with her death after a botched heart-lung transplant operation, The Santillan family attorney announced Sunday that his clients are taking legal steps towards a malpractice suit against Duke University Medical Center, sources tell NBC 17.

Doctors acknowledged the first of two sets of transplanted organs were of the wrong blood type and have taken responsibility for the error. But why was the first set of organs even offered by transplant coordinators?

After a series of tests, doctors at Duke University Hospital determined Saturday that Santillan, 17, met the criteria for the declaration of brain death. She was declared brain dead at 1:25 p.m., and taken off life-support machines at about 5 p.m., said Duke University Medical Center spokesman Richard Puff.

"All of us at Duke University Hospital are deeply saddened by this," said William Fulkerson, M.D., CEO of the hospital. "We want Jesica's family and supporters to know that we share their loss and their grief. We very much regret these tragic circumstances."

"As Jesica's surgeon I am ultimately responsible for the team and for this error," said surgeon James Jaggers. "I personally told the Santillan family about the errors that were made and then tried to do everything medically possible to treat Jesica and try to save her life."

When a heart and matching lungs were donated in Boston two weeks ago, a computer generated a list of patients medically compatible and awaiting transplants.

But Santillan, the eventual recipient of those organs, failed to make that list because -- as would become tragically evident -- her blood type did not match.

How did it happen?

Experts in the organ matching system say a mistake like this might occur if a transplant coordinator is having trouble finding a patient who will take the organs.

Despite the acute shortage, some donated organs are damaged, so doctors are reluctant to take them. If they come from a child, as may have been the case here, the organs might be too small for most people on the waiting list.

If a transplant coordinator is having trouble finding a match from the official list of waiting patients, the coordinator might start contacting doctors to see if they have a patient who can use the organs.

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