Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self

Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self

Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self

Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self

Synopsis

Strange Harvest illuminates the wondrous yet disquieting medical realm of organ transplantation by drawing on the voices of those most deeply involved: transplant recipients, clinical specialists, and the surviving kin of deceased organ donors. In this rich and deeply engaging ethnographic study, anthropologist Lesley Sharp explores how these parties think about death, loss, and mourning, especially in light of medical taboos surrounding donor anonymity. As Sharp argues, new forms of embodied intimacy arise in response, and the riveting insights gleaned from her interviews, observations, and descriptions of donor memorials and other transplant events expose how patients and donor families make sense of the transfer of body parts from the dead to the living. For instance, all must grapple with complex yet contradictory clinical assertions of death as easily detectable and absolute; nevertheless, transplants are regularly celebrated as forms of rebirth, and donors as living on in others' bodies. New forms of sociality arise, too: recipients and donors' relatives may defy sanctions against communication, and through personal encounters strangers are transformed into kin. Sharp also considers current experimental research efforts to develop alternative sources for human parts, with prototypes ranging from genetically altered animals to sophisticated mechanical devices. These future trajectories generate intriguing responses among both scientists and transplant recipients as they consider how such alternatives might reshape established--yet unusual--forms of embodied intimacy.

Excerpt

Organ transplantation in the United States has entered a state of crisis, albeit one of its own design. The boldness of this statement rests on the supposition that transplantation simultaneously epitomizes technical genius and medical hubris in this country. Specialized surgeons now understand the function of highly sophisticated organs so well that they routinely remove these organs from the recently deceased, using them in turn to replenish life in their ailing patients. Nevertheless, even after fifty years of practice and refinement, transplantation looms as a troubling realm of medicine, especially within the lay imagination. Although it stands as an icon of medical accomplishment—and in some quarters may even be considered a routine response to a range of severe health problems—it nevertheless generates a host of perplexing questions about healing and illness, medical versus social definitions of death, the hybridization of human bodies, and nonmedicalized constructions of personhood, individuality, and the embodied self.

As a widespread surgical technique and lucrative arm of medicine, transplantation has generated a plethora of literature: its persistent ability to fascinate ensures its recurrent treatment within the mainstream press (early developments were featured on the cover of Life magazine). Organ transplants also provide rich fodder for plots in a wide range of media, including thriller fiction, television dramas, and film. Further, transplantation, as an icon of medical accomplishment, defines a regular subject of scientific inquiry in such flagship medical publications as the journal of the American Medical Association, the New England journal of Medicine, and the Lancet, It also lays claim to a range of specialized periodicals, including Transplantation, Transplantation Proceedings, the American journal of Transplantation, Clinical Transplantation, Liver Transplantation and Surgery, Pediatric Transplantation, Transplant Immunology, and Transplantation Interna-

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