LOS ANGELES (AP) – A surgeon was charged Monday with prescribing excessive drugs to a comatose, disabled patient to hasten his death and harvest his organs for transplantation.
Prosecutors in San Luis Obispo County said Dr. Hootan Roozrokh, 33, of San Francisco, gave a harmful drug and prescribed excessive doses of morphine and a sedative to 26-year-old Ruben Navarro, who died in 2006.
He was taken in a coma to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, in 2006 after suffering respiratory and cardiac arrest.
Although Navarro was found to have irreversible brain damage and was kept on a respirator, he was not considered brain dead because he still had limited brain function.
The day before Navarro died, his family gave approval for a surgical team to recover his organs for donation, though the procedure never occurred because Navarro did not die within 30 minutes of being removed from life support. He died the next day.
Roozrokh, a surgeon at Kaiser Permanente’s now-closed kidney transplant program, was working at the time on behalf of a group that procures and distributes organs. The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that the drugs were prescribed “to accelerate Mr. Navarro’s death in order to recover his organs.”
State law prohibits transplant surgeons to be involved in the treatment of potential organ donors before they are declared dead.
It’s the first such criminal case against a transplant doctor in the United States, the county district attorney’s office said.
Roozrokh’s lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, called the charges “unfounded and ill-advised,” saying his client “has unfairly been the subject of an 18-month witch hunt.”
“Nothing that Dr. Roozrokh did or said at the hospital that night adversely affected the quality of Mr. Navarro’s life or contributed to Mr. Navarro’s eventual death,” Schwartzbach said in a statement.
Prosecutors did not pursue murder charges because witnesses said they did not believe the drugs caused Navarro’s death.
“The central issue of this case is the mistreatment of a developmentally disabled, dependent adult in an attempt to hasten the person’s death for organ transplantation,” prosecutor Stephen Brown said in an interview.
The coroner’s office this year determined that Navarro died of natural causes. Last month, his mother, Rosa, filed a wrongful-death and medical malpractice lawsuit against Roozrokh and others, claiming her son was removed from life support without her permission and given lethal doses of drugs.
Navarro, who weighed about 80 pounds, was born with a neurological disorder known as adrenoleukodystrophy. He also had celebral palsy and seizures. Navarro lived in a home for mentally and physically challenged adults in the year before his death.
A report from federal regulators said Roozrokh ordered Navarro to receive 200 milligrams of morphine and 80 milligrams of the sedative Ativan – far in excess of the usual doses.
Roozrokh was also accused of prescribing excessive morphine and administering the topical antiseptic Betadine into Navarro’s stomach.
Roozrokh, a U.S. citizen, was born in Iran and emigrated with his family at age 2. He was charged with felony counts of dependent adult abuse, administering a harmful substance and unlawful controlled substance prescription. If convicted of all three counts, he faces up to eight years in state prison or up to one year in jail and a $20,000 fine as a condition of probation.
Sierra Vista hospital officials began investigating when nurses alerted their bosses after Navarro’s death. A spokesman has said the hospital has since strengthened its organ donation procedures.