Handbook for Mortals : Dying suddenly : Some special issues: police, autopsy, and organ donation

In addition to the unexpected loss, sudden death often brings with it the need to deal with investigating authorities. Emergency workers, such as the fire department and the police, may have to ask questions. While these people are only doing their jobs, it can be difficult for the family of a loved one who has died to understand, and hard to cooperate. Sometimes the authorities will keep you away from the body of your loved one, either because an investigation is ongoing, or because of the condition of the body. You will eventually get to be left alone and will be able to see the body, but no one may think to tell you so. Many police and emergency services are beginning to consider how to serve survivors better. You might ask if there is a chaplain or someone who could accompany you, or you might insist on having a friend or family member along.

Sometimes there is confusion about what exactly did happen. There can be misunderstandings and miscommunications. At times like these, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that some questions may not be able to be answered accurately right away. It is hard to be patient, but it is better to have to wait for a correct answer than get a hurried answer which turns out to be false.

In all cases of sudden death, the medical examiner will be notified and will decide whether an autopsy is required. An autopsy is a special examination of the body that often can determine a great deal about exactly what happened. The body is left looking normal and appropriate for family members to see. Nevertheless, people feel queasy about autopsy. At least in sudden deaths (except perhaps when there is serious chronic illness as the cause), the decision about autopsy is mostly out of your hands. If you have a strong religious objection, you should voice it, but the medical examiner is generally authorized to ignore your claim if there is any suspicion of foul play.

Sometimes members of the media want to ask questions. It is important to remember that you have a right to refuse to talk to reporters and to request to be left alone. If necessary, enlist the help of the authorities or friends or family members to ensure your privacy.

Among the people waiting to talk to the bereaved family may be medical personnel who want a decision about organ donation. In the case of sudden death, particularly if the death itself takes place in the hospital setting, any undamaged organs of the patient are ideally suited for helping someone else. It can be very difficult in the midst of shock and loss to hear about someone elseís needs. If your family member wrote out his or her wishes on a driverís license or an organ donor card, then you can be fairly comfortable in following those choices. If not, you need to know that any decision you make will be supported by the care team.

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Handbook for Mortals book cover Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Joanne Lynn. This extract from the Handbook for Mortals by Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D. is used with permission. To learn more about improving care at the end of life visit the main web site for Americans for Better Care of the Dying.
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