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California Surgeon faces trial in Organ Donation Case

By Greg Risling
November 2, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Ruben Navarro loved horror movies. He watched the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" series with his mother, Rosa, and liked to visit Knott's Berry Farm when it was transformed every October to "Knott's Scary Farm."

Since his death 2 1/2 years ago, Rosa Navarro says she has been living a real-life nightmare without her only child. Ruben Navarro, who had multiple medical problems, died in a San Luis Obispo hospital after a heart attack, then was taken off a ventilator and prepared for organ donation.

The circumstances surrounding that death will be center stage in opening statements scheduled to begin Monday in the trial of Dr. Hootan Roozrokh, a San Francisco transplant surgeon who is accused of hastening Navarro's death so his organs could be harvested.

"He was my world," Rosa Navarro told The Associated Press on Thursday. "It's been very, very hard for me. He didn't die with respect and integrity."

Roozrokh, 34, faces one count of felony dependent adult abuse. Two other felony counts were dismissed by San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Martin J. Tangeman in March.

If convicted, he could face four years in prison.

Defense lawyer M. Gerald Schwartzbach has argued that Roozrokh did nothing wrong, saying he did not endanger Navarro's health or life. Schwartzbach did not respond to an e-mail message seeking further comment.

The case against Roozrokh is believed to be the first such criminal action brought against a transplant doctor in the U.S.

Navarro, 25, died in February 2006 at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. He had a debilitating neurological disease and was in a coma after the heart attack.

His kidneys and liver were never harvested because he didn't die within a time frame when those organs would have been considered viable.

The hospital has said it had Rosa Navarro's permission to remove her son from life support, but she disputes that.

Statements to police by nurses present in the operating room indicated Roozrokh improperly ordered excessive doses of morphine and a sedative for Navarro. State law says transplant surgeons must wait until a potential donor is dead before participating in procedures.

But Tangeman said in his ruling dismissing the other two charges that there was no evidence Roozrokh administered or ordered a combination of morphine and the sedative. The judge also noted that doctors and nurses present when Navarro died gave conflicting accounts of what happened.

Roozrokh, a surgeon at Kaiser Permanente's now-closed kidney transplant program, was working at the time on behalf of a group that procures and distributes organs.

The case is being watched closely by physicians and others in the medical field, said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania who worries that a conviction could hurt prospects for expanding organ donation.

"It's a trust issue," Caplan said. "It's such a moral taboo to give the appearance of hastening a death through organ donation. Were he to be found guilty, it would be a thunderclap heard through the organ procurement field."

Navarro, who weighed about 80 pounds, was born with a neurological disorder known as adrenoleukodystrophy and also had cerebral palsy. He lived in a home for mentally and physically challenged adults in the year before his death.

The hospital and its parent company settled a lawsuit last year filed by Rosa Navarro for $250,000. Under terms of the settlement, the hospital acknowledged no wrongdoing.

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