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Officials Investigating Claim That Anesthesiologist Gave Boy Lethal Dose Of Opioid To Hasten Death

Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center (Photo by Ann Johansson/Getty Images)
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The LAPD and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office are investigating claims that an anesthesiologist gave an eight-year-old boy a lethal dose of an opioid in 2013 with aims of quickening his death and to help preserve his organs for donation, reports the L.A. Times.

The incident started when the boy—Cole Hartman—was discovered by his father to be drowning in a washing machine at their Castaic home. Hartman was born with X syndrome, which leads to intellectual and physical disabilities.

At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, physicians told Hartman's parents that while he wasn't braindead, he would never wake from his coma. His parents later agreed to take him off life support and donate his organs.

As the Times notes, his organs were to be taken and preserved after his ventilator was removed and his heart had stopped beating—this process is known as as donation after cardiac death, or DCD. In 2015, DCD accounted for about nine percent of all organ transplants.

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Denise Bertone, a coroner’s investigator, would later claim in a lawsuit that Hartman was still gasping for air after the ventilator had been removed, and that Dr. Judith Brill, an anesthesiologist, gave the boy 500 micrograms of fentanyl "with the purpose of inducing his death" and to improve the likelihood that his organs would still be viable for donation ("The vital organs quickly become unusable for transplantation" after a heart stops beating, according to The Gift of a Lifetime, an organ donation education group). Under UCLA guidelines, opioids may be used to prevent discomfort, but is prohibited from being used to hasten a death, even if it increases the chances of harvesting an organ for donation.

Bertone's lawsuit was part of a whistle-blower retaliation claim—Bertone alleged that she was tasked with less-desirable work after she'd pushed for officials to reexamine Hartman's death. Her actions would lead the coroner's office to amend Hartman's death certificate to list fentanyl toxicity as a significant cause of his death. Her suit also claims that certain documents were missing from Hartman's case file, including the hospital's report on how much fentanyl had been administered.

Bertone is the only full-time pediatric death investigator at the county coroner’s office, a position she's held for about 15 years, according to an earlier KPCC article.

Both UCLA and the district attorney's office declined to provide comment to LAist regarding the case.