New York woman in coma woke up as doctors prepared to take her organs

Saint Joseph's Medical Center in Syracuse, N.Y. (Google)

Most of the time, people go toward the light as they're dying. In Colleen Burns' case, looking toward the light saved her.

Doctors were about to begin surgery to remove the still-living woman's organs when she opened her eyes. 

Her near-death experience occurred on the operating table in 2009 after surgeons at Saint Joseph's Hospital Health Center in Syracuse mistook her three-day coma as irrevocable, according to state Health Department findings reported Tuesday by the Syracuse Post-Standard.

The close call occurred after Burns arrived at the emergency room unconscious from a drug overdose.

The New York State Department of Health and Human Services does not approve of premature organ removal. It levied a $6,000 fine against the hospital for the error, the Post-Standard reported. It also was coupled with another $16,000 fine.

What led to Burns awakening on the operating table just moments before an operation to remove her organs?

Burns was found unconscious in her home on Oct. 16, 2009, and was rushed to the hospital. Three days later, and still unresponsive, doctors asked her family for permission to donate her organs. On Oct. 19, 2009, the family granted permission, despite a nurse noticing that Burns' "toes curled when foot stimulated, tachycardic hypertensive, flaring nostrils, mouthing with lips and moving tongue, breathing above the ventilator," the Health Department report noted.

Doctors and nurses did do followup progress checks, but decided to go ahead with the organ removal operation. The state report found: "Patient A [Burns] was moved to the OR suite for pursuit of the DCD [donation after cardiac death]. However, in the OR suite Patient A opened her eyes and looked at the lights; pursuit of DCD was subsequently halted."

Despite the close call, Burns didn't sue the hospital, the newspaper reported. Her mother told the paper that the 41-year-old suffered from depression and that her illness affected her deeply. Colleen Burns committed suicide 16 months later. 

"She was so depressed that it really didn't make any difference to her," her mother Lucille Kuss told the paper.

The 10-page report can be read here.

Contact Brian X. McCrone at 215-854-2267 or Follow @brianxmccrone on Twitter.

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