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Doctor accused of hastening death for patient's organs

  • Story Highlights
  • California doctor stands accused of speeding up patient's death for organs
  • If convicted, the doctor could face up to 8 years in prison
  • By the time the patient died, his organs were no longer viable
  • Donor community keeps close eye on proceedings, says it's already having effects
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From Dan Simon and Paul Vercammen
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SAN LUIS OBISPO, California (CNN) -- A respected California transplant doctor faces charges he hastened a comatose man's death to retrieve his organs -- a far-reaching case that could impact the nation's organ donation industry.


Ruben Navarro had suffered from a debilitating nerve disease since he was 9. He died at the age of 25.

Dr. Hootan Roozrokh, 34, is accused of ordering excessive doses of drugs to expedite the death of Ruben Navarro, a 25-year-old man who had suffered from a debilitating nerve disease since he was 9, according to the criminal complaint.

On February 3, 2006, Dr. Roozrokh hurried from San Francisco to the Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center with a transplant team after receiving word Navarro would be a donor.

In a pretrial hearing last week, Dr. Laura Lubarsky, a critical-care specialist, testified she would not have ordered morphine or the sedative Ativan as Roozrokh allegedly did. She said she was called into the operating room to monitor Navarro after he was taken off life support and to pronounce him dead. Video Watch both sides of a heart-breaking case »

Lubarsky told the court she heard Roozrokh order a nurse to give Navarro more "candy," meaning additional drugs.

Prosecutors have charged Roozrokh with three felony counts, including one charge of "dependent adult abuse" for allegedly administering excessive amounts of a drug cocktail that included morphine and Ativan, both of which are used to comfort dying patients. Roozrokh is also accused of injecting Betadine, a topical antiseptic, into Navarro's feeding tube.

If convicted, Roozrokh -- a Stanford-trained doctor -- could face up to eight years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.

"Dr. Roozrokh did not intend to hasten Mr. Navarro's death and, in fact, did not hasten his death," defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach told CNN before a gag order was imposed in the case.

Navarro's mother, Rosa Navarro, disagrees. Her son, she says, "died without respect and dignity."

"I loved that boy," she told CNN. "He was the world to me and nothing can make me happy, except him."

Some in the transplant profession say Dr. Roozrokh should not have even been in the operating room while the patient was still alive.

"The standard of practice is for the transplant surgeon to be outside the operating room until death has been declared," said Thomas Mone, president of the Association of Organ Procurement Organization. "The unfortunate error in this case was the transplant surgeon being in the room and that's highly, highly unusual."

Organ donation groups are keeping a close eye on the courtroom proceedings. Mone said the case had forced his staff and fellow transplant colleagues to "review the recovery procedures with our transplant programs when we start a case -- every single case."

A written statement from the American Society of Transplant Surgeons said it doesn't have enough facts about the Roozrokh case, but the group is concerned about its possible effects.

"The sensationalism of this case in the media will unfortunately result in a decrease in organ donation. This, in turn, will deprive patients waiting for life-saving organ transplantation their opportunity for life," said Goran Klintmalm, the president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons.

"If Dr. Roozrokh is guilty, it would represent a gross aberration in the organ donation process, not the gift of life we are all trying to provide."

At least one former patient has spoken out in support of Roozrokh.

"He performed surgery on me and literally saved my life," Joe Quiroz told CNN-affiliate KCOY in an August interview. "I have known Dr. Roozrokh to be a man of great, great compassion."

The preliminary hearing continues this week. Rosa Navarro has filed lawsuits against the doctor and the hospital. The hospital settled with her, but denied liability. Her suit against Roozrokh is pending.


In a written statement, the hospital said it had "been cooperative with all regulating agencies, law enforcement and legal representatives. We have entered into this settlement with Mrs. Navarro in an effort to put this incident behind us and to hopefully allow her healing process to begin."

Whatever occurred in the operating room that February day, there would be no successful transplant. By the time Navarro died, some eight hours later, his organs were no longer viable because too much time had passed. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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