The first-of-its-kind transplant involving a genetically modified pig heart raised ethical questions, after it was revealed the patient who received the surgery earlier had stabbed a man multiple times, leaving him paralyzed.
David Bennett Sr, 57, made headlines around the world earlier this week when it was announced that he was in safe recovery from the world’s first successful transgenic pig heart transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
University doctors heralded the procedure as an important step in helping the more than 110,000 people on organ transplant lists each year get help on time, where many die before they can have surgery.
“This was a revolutionary surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. There simply are not enough donor human hearts available to fill the long list of potential recipients,” Dr. Bartley P Griffith, who performed the surgery, said in a statement.
The news certainly had a different sentiment for Leslie Shumaker Downer, whose brother was stabbed to death by Bennett and paralyzed in an attack at a Maryland bar in 1988. He told The Washington Post, who discovered the previous conviction, who recognized the importance of heart transplantation, but does not see Bennett as a hero.
“Ed suffered,” Downey told the Post. “The devastation and trauma, that my family had to deal with for years and years… Now [David Bennett] He gets a second chance with a new heart, but I wish, in my opinion, that it had gone to a deserving recipient.”
On April 30, 1988, Bennett stabbed Ed seven times in a Hagerstown, Maryland bar, allegedly after seeing Ed flirt with his wife. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and was separately ordered to pay the Shumaker family $3.4 million in a civil lawsuit, which they claimed they never received. Edward Shumaker was confined to a wheelchair for the next two decades, before suffering a stroke in 2005 and dying two years later. Meanwhile, the rest of the family suffered alongside him, having to take out loans to pay for a wheelchair accessible van. Ed’s brother, an EMT, who had dropped him off at the bar the day of the attack and was later called to respond to the bloody scene, struggled with guilt and then became addicted to opioids, before dying in 1999 from an overdose at the age of 28, according to his family.
University Medical Center said in a statement that it provides “vital care to every patient who walks through its doors based on their medical needs, not their history or life circumstances… This patient came to us in dire need.” and a decision was made about his transplant eligibility based on his medical records alone.”
In most medical circles, it is considered unethical to deny someone medical care based on their criminal record.
“Punitive attitudes that completely exclude people convicted of crimes from receiving medical treatment, including organ transplantation, are ethically unsound,” an ethics panel wrote in 2015 for the California Health Resources and Services Administration. Federal Health, adding: “Offenders not sentenced to death are expected to return to society and be deemed worthy of equal treatment in receiving other items/services distributed by society.”
Bennett was denied transplant eligibility at previous hospitals for medical and non-medical reasons. His prior history of heart failure and irregular heartbeats made him ineligible for some transplants, as did his prior history of not following doctor’s orders, attending follow-up visits or consistently taking medications, according to his son.
David Bennett Jr, Bennett’s son, said his father never spoke about his past and praised him for taking a risk that could benefit medical science. This winter, facing his possible death at a Baltimore hospital, Bennett Sr. allegedly began asking questions about being an organ donor or other ways to benefit science if he died of his heart condition.
“My intention here is not to talk about my father’s past. My intention is to focus on innovative surgery and my father’s desire to contribute to science and the possibility of saving patient lives in the future,” David Bennett, Jr. said in a statement.
Around 17 people die each day while waiting for an organ transplant.