Denial of Heart Transplant For Autistic Man Sparks Outrage

An autistic 23-year-old man, Paul Corby, has been denied a heart transplant by the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2008, Corby’s family learned that he has a left ventricle that did not close after he was born, so that his heart does not pump the right amount of blood. A cardiologist said he would need a transplant in 2011.

Paul’s mother, Karen Corby, received a letter in June 2011 from Penn cardiologist Susan Brozena recommending that he not receive the transplant “given his psychiatric issues, autism, the complexity of the process, multiple procedures and the unknown and unpredictable effect of steroids on behavior.”

Paul’s official diagnosis is Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). As his mother tells the Philadelphia Inquirer:

… [Paul] is high functioning and spends his days playing video games and writing the sequel to his pre-teen, self-published novel, Isaac the Runner. He carried his ever-present Princess Peach doll with him to his transplant evaluation. He takes medicine for an unspecified mood disorder, his mother said. He has shouted loudly enough that police have been called “three or four times” to the family’s home.

Paul currently takes 19 medications, most for his heart condition, and has anxiety; though he has not been diagnosed with a specific mood disorder, he takes a mood stabilizer. Following the Penn hospital’s rejection of his transplant request, Paul has been “more depressed and upset,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also notes that he feels “desperate” for treatment and that neither surgery nor long, and potentially repeated, stays in the hospital scare him: “I don’t care how long I’m in there. I just want my life to be saved. That’s all,” he says.

Debate About Medical Ethics

Paul’s case has sparked a debate about medical ethics. Dr. Daniel Coury, Autism Speaks’ Medical Director for the Autism Treatment Network, tells ABC News that “It seems that they have looked at this person as a label rather than the unique qualities that this person has.”

Dr. David Cronin, an associate professor of transplant surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin, emphasizes that, while not knowing all the specifics of the case:

“I have never since 1995 seen that decision made in a cavalier fashion. These decisions are not made in isolation. They’re not made easily … We know the outcome is if someone is denied a transplant.”

Decisions about organ transplants are “one of the few areas of modern medicine with overt and unavoidable rationing,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer. 331 people waiting for heart transplants died last year; ABC News says that “denials come because organs are a scarce resource, with three to four times as many people who need transplants as there are organs available.”

Penn health system spokeswoman Susan Phillips notes that 38 percent of patients who had been evaluated for heart transplants during the last two years had been denied, “mostly because of other medical conditions that would affect their survival or quality of life after a transplant.”

Medical Care For Individuals With Disabilities

I first read about Paul Corby being denied a heart transplant in a post last week on by Joslyn Gray, who has two sons with Asperger’s Syndrome. My teenage son Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. After he banged his face through a car window, an ER doctor refused to give Charlie stitches on the front of his face, on the grounds that he would rip the stitches out. We were appalled to hear this.

On another occasion, Charlie needed staples in the back of his head and pulled them out (fortunately, after his wound had healed sufficiently).

A huge outcry was raised earlier this year when the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) denied a kidney transplant to a 2-year-old Amelia, who has Wolf-Hirschorn Syndrome (a genetic condition occurring in 1 in 50,000 individuals), a kidney transplant. With more and awareness for individuals with disabilities, the ethical issues raised in Amelia’s and Paul’s cases are sure to arise again.

Related Care2 Coverage

Good News! Child With Disabilities May Get Kidney Transplant

3 Books On Raising Children With Disabilities (Slideshow)

Website Forced to Remove Misleading Vaccine-Autism Claims

Photo by Alex E. Proimos


Deborah D.
Deborah D6 years ago

There is an important bit or three of information missing here.
My understanding is that there is a tendency with people in the autisma spectrum that they are often hyper- or hypo- responsive to medicines like steroids, anti-depressants and the like.

If that is the reasoning for this decision, then it seems mighty shallow. Temple Grandin spoke to this issue in her book "Thinking In Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life With Autism".

Elisabeth T.
Elisabeth T6 years ago

Sad article..

Pauline N.
Polly Nicoll6 years ago

are we to believe he is a second class citizen in a country that prides itself on the equality of all, and equal opportunities, this is just MORALLY WRONG.

Pauline N.
Polly Nicoll6 years ago

are we to believe he is a second class citizen in a country that prides itself on the equality of all, and equal opportunities, this is just MORALLY WRONG.

Mary L.
Mary L6 years ago

Things are routinely denied and they have nothing to do with the Affordable Health Care Act. Doctors are rationed. If you live in a rural area you have to travel to get to care and it may be too far and too late.

People don't sign up for donation and organs are rationed. No insurance? All medical care is rationed.

This is an awful thing and they'd better be able to explain themselves clearly regarding the decision.

Teresa Cowley
Teresa Cowley6 years ago

Cheney, an evil old man with no heart but plenty of money and power manages to get a heart, but a young man with his whole life ahead of him (or it should be!) cannot--God help America if this is our criteria for such a choice!

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola6 years ago

Good article. Thanks for sharing.

Claire M.
Claire M6 years ago

The current medical industry is not going to allow us to grow organs or advance technology that would save lives. This is the primary reason for the twisted and overcharged intellectual property rights laws we are living with, to suppress new ideas and direct people to the profit making status quo. Big pharma, insurance and providers are making too much money keeping us sick.

On an ironic note when the man in the article dies his organs will likely be harvested for those who can pay.

Simon Broome
Simon Broome6 years ago

I think we are all overlooking the fact that in the next few years, certainly within the next Decade, we will be able to grow these organs, thus eliminating the need for donors.

Those of you who have followed my commenting career will know of my appreciation of vat-grown meat. Through this technology, we can grow human tissue, which can then be used in medicine.

Let us hope then, that with organs to spare, we are able to be a little less careful with them... :)

Bren Tr
brenda t6 years ago

Maybe there should be an age limit? How did Cheney get a heart transplant so fast if theres a waiting list? Why would an old man get a heart transplant when his life is pretty close to over, yet there are young people needing them and not getting them? Not enough donors, or not enough money???