Monday, June 12, 2017

An 8-year-old was taken off life support, his organs donated. Now, Los Angeles police are investigating

Richard Winton and Harriet RyanContact Reporters

By the time Cole Hartman arrived at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, he was in grave condition. The 8-year-old had gone into cardiac arrest after nearly drowning in a washing machine at his Castaic home. Paramedics had gotten his heart beating again, but he remained in a coma and on a ventilator.

Physicians at UCLA's pediatric intensive care unit told Cole's family that the child was not brain-dead but would never recover normal neuro function and could never awaken, according to an entry in his medical chart.

The Hartmans decided to take Cole off life support and donate his organs. He was removed from the ventilator and, 23 minutes later with his family at his bedside, pronounced dead by an anesthesiologist.

The seemingly peaceful death four years ago is now the subject of an investigation by Los Angeles police and the district attorney's office. Homicide detectives are looking into an allegation by a coroner's investigator that the anesthesiologist gave Cole a fatal dose of the opioid fentanyl to hasten his death and increase the likelihood his organs could be harvested. No charges have been brought.

A lawyer for the anesthesiologist, Dr. Judith Brill, said the allegation was "factually wrong and patently offensive."

Brill's "only concern was to assure that this child, who had drowned and was never going to recover, would not suffer any pain following the removal of life support," attorney Mark Werksman wrote in an email to The Times.

A rare criminal investigation

The probe is one of only a handful of known criminal investigations into a doctor's role in an organ donation, and it offers a window into the ethical issues that can play out during a donor's last moments of life.

"As you can imagine, this is very complicated," said LAPD Capt. William Hayes, who oversees the elite Robbery-Homicide Division conducting the investigation. "We need to clearly understand what was done and the implications of those actions."

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