“I Could Not Pray for Sarah Murnaghan”

A doctor's perspective on 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan's lung transplant

My house, much like many others for the last week, has been filled with prayers for Sarah Murnaghan. My husband, a man of faith, says his prayers religiously. He has been wishing for 10-year-old Sarah, who lives in Newtown Square and suffers from severe cystic fibrosis, to get what she needed. He cried when he heard yesterday that Sarah got the lungs she was waiting for.

I cried too, but for a very different reason. Unlike my husband, who saw nothing but the joy and elation at Sarah having received the lungs she was in desperate need of, my thoughts went to a very different place: My mind was on the organ donor—and his or her family.

On a micro-level, this serves as an example of how my husband and I view things completely differently. I am the thinker, and he is the dreamer. While I view my glass as both half empty and half full, so I can examine both sides of an argument, my husband’s cup simply runneth over. He can find the bright side in any situation and he clings to it. His unrelenting enthusiasm lights up the room. He prays with purpose and meaning for all of those around him and for anyone he sees in need of help. And he prayed for Sarah.

We, like the rest of the world, learned of Sarah’s plight when her mother spurred public debate about how organs in this country are allocated. Federal judge Michael Baylson ruled to allow Sarah to be put on the recipient list for adult donors. Pediatric lung donors are rare and Sarah was running out of time after having been put into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator. She had just days to live without a transplant.

The country breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when it learned that Sarah had gotten the call she so longed for: a donor had become available. Sarah underwent successful lung transplant surgery. Her mother posted on her Facebook page, “God is great. He moved the mountain.”

Yes, he did. And it came crashing down on someone else’s world.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in organ donation. I carry my organ-donor card around with me. I support Gift of Life. When I’m gone, if someone can make use of what’s left of me, God bless them. But I remain conflicted. And I certainly don’t go around praying for organs to become available.

Since my training as a surgical resident, I am haunted by the images of grieving families, their loved one’s life terminated in youth. While they may find some solace and consolation in extending or improving the lives of others through the gift of organ donation, I know that it is a poor substitute for their loss. As a cancer surgeon, I am accustomed to difficult conversations, but I can tell you that they pale in comparison to those that I had during my days as a trauma doctor. There is no more difficult conversation than to have to tell a parent their child is brain dead and ask if they want to donate their organs.

As a mother of two boys, and a stepmother of two girls, the whole situation is unimaginable to me. I can’t imagine the terror that the Murnaghan’s experienced in knowing that their child might die at any time, or the devastating heartache that the donor family is experiencing now. In this race, the price of winning came at great cost. I guess it’s just the circle of life. There is no winner without a loser, no heaven without a hell.

So with that I confess, I could not pray for Sarah. I knew that praying for her would mean someone would have to die. As a physician whose focus is saving lives, wishing for death goes against every fiber of my being. I was, however, left with the consolation that my husband’s prayers, big, bold and compelling, like the man himself, would be enough for the both of us.


Jennifer Chalfin Simmons, M.D., F.A.C.S., is the chief of breast surgery and director of the breast program at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery. She is also recognized among the best physicians in the region as a Top Doctor in Philadelphia Magazine.

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