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Younghwa Chang, Andrea Ibarra, Daniel Cruz

In this photo taken on Oct. 18, 2010, UCLA cardiologist, Daniel Cruz, right, and Younghwa Chang, R.N., perform a heart biopsy on recent beating heart transplant patient Andrea Ybarra, at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. The transplant was part of a procedure where the donor heart is placed into a special box that feeds it blood and keeps it warm and beating outside the body. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In the 65-year history of organ transplants, the practice of removing viable hearts, livers, kidneys and more from the newly deceased has never been attacked as severely as it was in mid-October by California’s largest newspaper.

Los Angeles Times editors and reporters did not respond directly when asked why they wrote and published more than five full broadsheet pages blasting this key part of the transplant process. Transplant organs are always taken only with the full permission of donors – expressed while they were still alive – and/or with full consent of families involved.

Rather than having writers and editors answer questions, the Times provided this statement: “There is much about the organ and tissue harvesting and donation process, and how it can complicate death investigations, that the public is not aware of. These stories helped shine a light on that and provided readers with more details about how to make an informed choice about organ donation.”

Any such “light” was quite dim at best, while the paper’s long series contained key errors and omissions.

The central Times claim is that “dozens of death investigations, including many in California, (have) been complicated or delayed by the procurement of tissues or organs before the coroner’s autopsy.”

But the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners wrote the paper saying no cause-of-death examinations have been impeded by organ recoveries.

The Times itself quoted Jonathan Lucas, chief medical examiner and coroner of Los Angeles County, who said he believes no cause-of-death or criminal investigation has been impeded in his county by organ recoveries.

The Times refused to say why it proceeded with its series after learning this.

The paper also implied profiteering by regional transplant organ recovery organizations that facilitate virtually all recoveries and use national rules to distribute organs. Patients who get organs often endure years of severe disability while awaiting life-saving hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs and more. Other body parts, like corneas used to restore eyesight and skin for burn victims are usually distributed through tissue banks.

So far, reader letters published by the Times indicate the series caused some would-be organ donors to revoke permission. This raised a key life-and-death question inexplicably ignored by the Times series and statement.

It was expressed this way by Thomas Mone, CEO of OneLegacy, the Southern California organ recovery organization which is the largest in America. “Theoretically, if the Times’ claims were correct, the question would be whether forensic exams are more important than the lives saved by transplants,” Mone said.

He added, “If these stories cause even one person not to donate, that could cost eight lives and deprive 75 persons of healing tissues.”

Mone also insists OneLegacy and similar outfits take no organs or tissue until medical examiners permit removal.

Another key point the paper omitted: human organs are viable for only about 30 minutes after persons are removed from whatever devices kept them alive after being declared brain-dead.

This urgency explains why organ procurement organizations nationally set up offices and laboratories in or near morgues, a practice the Times strongly implied is corrupt.

The paper also repeatedly calls the nonprofit organizations “companies,” hinting they are motivated by money.

(Full disclosure: Columnist Elias has a live-donor kidney transplant; no organ recovery organization was involved in his case.)

Attacked most strongly in the series was OneLegacy, operating in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern and Santa Barbara counties.

Other outfits recovering organs in California include LifeSharing in San Diego, Donor Network West in the San Francisco Bay area and Sierra Donor Services in the Central Valley.

Together, they enabled more than 3,200 organ transplants from deceased donors in 2018. That number dwarfed last year’s 698 transplants from live donors.

Mone denied OneLegacy ever seeks profits. The organization employs more than 400 doctors, nurses and others. Annual budgets approach $100 million, mostly derived from payments for its services during organ recovery and transplants.

By law, any profits from kidney transplants go to the federal Medicare fund, with other net income used to improve operations, none going to salaries.

All of which leaves the basic mystery here unanswered: Why did California’s largest newspaper publish highly flawed stories that may cost many lives?

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Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

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