A drama unfolded last week which captured the nation's attention. Seventeen year old Jessica Santillan underwent heart and lung transplant surgery at Duke University Medical Center on February 7th. Towards the end of the surgery a horrific mistake was discovered. The donated organs were of a different blood-type from Jessica's O negative. Her body naturally rejected the new organs. Miraculously, a matching set was found and another surgery was immediately performed in a desperate attempt to save Jessica's life.

Before the first transplant, Jessica's family paid a smuggler to get them into the US from Guadalajara, Mexico. The family waited some three years before the first organs were found. The fact that a second, and this time matching set, was found so quickly is extraordinary.

Unfortunately this story did not seem to have a happy ending. The trauma of having the wrong organs implanted at first, coupled with the radical surgical procedures, caused irreversible damage to Jessica's brain, and she was pronounced dead at 1:25 pm on Saturday, February 22, 2003.

The list of tragic occurrences in this story is long. Not only did Jessica lose her life, but two other critically ill people will not be receiving the organs that were used for Jessica. This devastating mishap occurred because somehow the compatibility of Jessica and the donated organs was not confirmed before the operation. Somewhere, someone must be losing sleep over this terrible oversight. The anguish in Jessica's family, other families with waiting recipients, and the Duke Medical community must be profound. Thankfully, they have immediately put in place new procedures to preclude another incident of this sort taking place.

The advance in medical technology that this sort of case brings to our attention also raises numerous ethical questions. The policy is that once someone is in our country they are placed on the same waiting list as anyone else. On the other hand, only 5% of donated organs are allowed to benefit recent immigrants. But then again, inmates in prisons are put on the same list — conceivably a convicted murderer might have gotten those organs before the innocent young Jessica.

This question opens up a virtual Pandora's Box of possibilities and dilemmas. If we are to prioritize one life over another who is to decide the criteria? Will someone who is obese be denied donated organs because of a life of self-abuse? What if the overweight person has a genetic predisposition to obesity? Perhaps in that case it is not really his fault? Once we have crossed the line and decided that priorities will be established, are we any better than the ancient Greeks who would leave sick babies on hilltops to die? They did this so that the general society would not be depleted caring for the sick.

Cases precisely like this help us appreciate the Torah and its creed of ethics. The Torah states that human life is sanctified and holy. Every human being is created in the image of G‑d. The decision on "Who is to live, and who is to die," is G‑d's to make. We simply apply the appropriate laws of the Torah to the situation at hand.

Jessica's case teaches us something else as well. Each human is unique. One person's life blood will be another person's death. This shows us that we all have our own special role to play within creation. No one is superfluous; no one can take another's place in the cosmic scheme of things. Our differences make us stronger as the distinct strands of rope make it stronger.

When humankind finally appreciates the absolute sanctity of life, recognizing that we all have certain unalienable rights, and at the same time recognizing that we each have a specific and unique role to play, the world will be ready for redemption. Let us hope and pray that this occurs speedily in our days!