One, in Philadelphia, needed a kidney. The other, in Chicago, needed a heart.
The first, three-year-old Amelia Rivera with Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, was turned down for a kidney transplant in 2012 because of her ‘mental retardation,’ according to her parents. “She is not eligible because of her quality of life—because of her mental delays” the parents said a nephrology doctor told them.
Special-needs parents lit up the blogosphere in protest and over 50,000 people signed a petition at change.org asking the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to reconsider its decision. All the major media networks ran news stories on the case and CHOP reversed its decision. Last year Amelia received a kidney transplant from her mother and is thriving.
The second girl, a baby dubbed “Annie Golden Heart” on a Facebook page run by her parents, had Down syndrome. She was in heart failure, but was ineligible for a new heart because of her disability. Last week, she died at age two. Despite her Facebook page, Annie's story didn't garner the media clout to influence hospital policy like Amelia's had. I wonder how her parents explained her death to her two older sisters?
This change.org petition questions why children with Down syndrome are not considered candidates for organ transplants. It has almost 40,000 signatures, but it hasn’t caught the imagination of the media.
Last year CNN reported on a five-month-old baby with a heart defect who was okayed for a heart transplant, only to have this decision reversed two days later when it was discovered that the child had a genetic condition. The doctors said his genetic condition compromised his immune system, making him a poor candidate for transplant, and told the parents to take him home and love him till he died. His mother went online and researched the syndrome, reading studies and contacting the expert her son's syndrome is named after. The study authors and the expert said that the condition is not associated with immune problems and is not a reason to deny the child a transplant.
The syndrome is, however, associated with intellectual disability and there’s a long history of categorically excluding people with intellectual disability from eligibility for transplants; they’re not seen as worthy of these scarce resources.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has published an excellent toolkit on transplant discrimination based on disability.
In its Guide for Clinicians the authors note that “the most common barrier is the misconception that people with disabilities—especially those with intellectual, developmental, or psychiatric disabilities—are unable to comply with post-operative treatment regimens and that, as a result, people with disabilities have a lower likelihood of transplant success. In addition, providers may incorrectly assume that people with disabilities have a lower quality of life than people without disabilities and therefore would not benefit as much from life-saving transplants…”.
The guide includes recent studies that show that with adequate post-surgery care, people with intellectual disabilities have survival rates for kidney and heart transplants that are comparable with those in the general population.
The guide includes case studies, like the one of a 9-year-old boy with autism who needed a heart transplant. Two transplant centres refused to even evaluate the boy, who types to communicate, based on his disability.
In its toolkit on transplant discrimination, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network says that “as early as 1992, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took the position that deeming people with disabilities to have a lower ‘quality of life,’ and refusing health care on that basis, would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
It goes on to say that “Clinicians’ estimates may, as a result of their own ‘horror of handicap,’ dramatically undervalue the actual quality of life of disabled patients. In reality, people with significant developmental and intellectual disability—including those who need assistance with basic tasks, those with co-occurring physical disabilities, and those who do not communicate using language—may lead long, rich, and fulfilling lives in their communities. Moreover, patients with disabilities who received organ transplants may experience marked improvements in quality of life.”
Ironically, two days before “Annie Golden Heart” died last week, a state lawmaker from Philadelphia introduced legislation to end discrimination against people with disabilities in need of organ transplants. The bill, spurred by the fight of Karen Corby, whose 24-year-old son Paul, with autism, needs a heart transplant but isn’t eligible, is called Paul’s Law. “...To find out that he is not a candidate for a heart transplant—which is the only cure—because he's autistic, is the most terrifying thing a parent can go through," Karen Corby said.
Last year, Dr. Art Caplan, a bioethicist writing for MSNBC online summed up the situation beautifully: “Children with intellectual disabilities do not appear on transplant waiting lists with the frequency that should be expected…There are reasons why anyone with an intellectual or physical disability might not be considered a good candidate for a transplant. But those reasons, to be ethical, have to be linked to the chance of making the transplant succeed. Otherwise they are not reasons, they are only biases.”