In October 2009, just as doctors at a Syracuse hospital were about to slice into a woman’s body to harvest her organs, the believed-to-be-deceased patient opened her eyes on the operating table and gazed up at the glaring light above her.
After doctors mistakingly pronounced Colleen S. Burns brain dead, her family gave doctors permission to take her off life support and harvest her organs. The thing is, the 41-year-old mother of three was not brain dead. She was actually alive but in a deep coma after overdosing on Xanax, Benadryl and a muscle relaxant in a failed suicide attempt.
According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the St. Joseph Hospital Health Center is being fined by the state department of health $22,000 after an investigation by the Health Department determined that several signs of life were shockingly ignored by doctors.
As reported by the New York Daily News, one day before Burns’ organs were to be removed, a nurse noticed something shocking about the patient: Her toes curled after the nurse ran a finger along her foot. But this wasn’t the only sign doctors ignored. Just before surgery on October 20, 2009, Burns’ nostrils were seen flared as though she was breathing independetly from the respirator. Her lips and tongue were seen moving as well.
Even after all these signs pointed to the fact that Burns was alive, a nurse injected the patient with a sedative to prep her for surgery. It was only after she opened her eyes in a sedative-induced daze that doctors admitted she wasn’t dead. Burns was discharged from the hospital after a two-week stay.
Neither Burns nor her family filed a lawsuit against the hospital or the doctors. Her mother, Lucille Kuss, explained that her daughter “was depressed that it really didn’t make any difference to her.” The hospital never explained to Burns or her family what went wrong during that dreadful stay.
Tragically, Burns committed suicide 16 months later from an overdose.
Burns’ medical mishap is reminiscent of Rom Houben, a car crash victim who was misdiagnosed as being in a coma when he was actually conscious the whole time. Houben spent 23 years trapped in his body as the rest of the world thought he was in a vegetative state. It was only after a hi-tech brain scans revealed that his brain was still functionally almost completely normally that he began therapy to regain movement of his limbs.
Here’s the report detailing the case of Burns at St. Joseph Hospital: