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The Straight Dope

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I recently heard that spy satellites can read the headlines off the newspaper of a person sitting on a park bench. How powerful are these satellites? Can they see through walls? --Todd Schaffer, Columbus, Ohio

Give me a break. Though the Pentagon isn't exactly bubbling over with details about things like this, we are fortunate enough to have in this country that great institution known as the Free Press, which can ferret out stuff that would take the KGB years. Defense reporter Jay Peterzell, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, of all places, says that the "resolution" of both U.S. and Soviet spy satellites is six inches or perhaps even less. That means if you have two objects six inches square and they're placed at least six inches apart, they'll show up as two distinct items in the photos, rather than one big blur. That's not bad; the resolution of commercial satellites ranges from 10 to 30 meters. But it still pretty much rules out reading the headlines in the newspaper, unless of course you're talking about something on the order of the New York Post, whose headlines you can read from Mars (which seems only fitting). For anything else the Russkies have to go out and plunk down a quarter like everybody else.

THE TEEMING MILLIONS BEEF

In response to your column on organ donation [December 4], it amazes me that someone who knows virtually nothing about a sensitive medical issue like this feels compelled to disseminate such biased information. Especially when that information is neither accurate nor appropriate.

In case of irreversible brain death, organ donation is offered to grieving families as an alternative which creates some solace and comfort in an otherwise abominable situation. It turns a senseless death into life. The families are approached by skilled medical professionals trained in this process and sensitive to their grief. The donor, in all cases, has been declared clinically brain dead (legally deceased) before any procurement activities are carried out. And finally, when the procurement takes place, it is done in the operating room under sterile conditions with the utmost respect afforded to the donor.

The reward to the grieving families is the knowledge that otherwise terminally ill patients suffering from end-stage organ failure can receive a second chance at our most precious commodity--LIFE. --Ricky Roth, RN, technical director, Midwest Region, Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, Chicago

I know this is a touchy issue, but it's simply not true that no "procurement activities" take place before the declaration of death. The former transplant coordinator for a major university medical center tells me that in a significant percentage of cases he got word about a potential donor before the donor was actually declared dead. He did not regard this as particularly scandalous, and neither do I. Apart from saving time, calling ahead saves doctors the trouble of having to bother the family if it turns out the potential donor's organs aren't suitable for transplant. Physically taking charge of the body is a different matter. Most transplant coordinators won't even go to the hospital until the donor is officially dead for fear of looking like vultures.

I'm sure transplant surgeons are respectful, but an organ harvest is one event where neatness is not a priority, at least when it comes to opening up the body. Instead of making, say, a six-inch incision in order to minimize scarring, the donor is "peeled wide open," says a surgeon who's been there. (See "An Improved Technique for Multiple Organ Harvesting" by Starzl et al, Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics, October 1987, for a technical description.) It has to be that way--there's no time for the aesthetic niceties. The organs themselves, of course, are treated with TLC. You get stitched back together for the funeral, same as with an autopsy.

I am not opposed to organ donation or organ harvests. I think everybody should sign the back of their driver's licenses. But I decline to deal in euphemism when discussing the subject.

I should clarify one detail. I said patients who are adjudged potential donors occasionally stage a miraculous recovery. While anything's possible, so far I haven't found a case where this actually occurred.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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