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Colleen Burns, a 41-year-old woman mistaken for dead, actually woke up in the hospital just as her organs were about to be harvested by doctors.

Burns, an organ donor, was taken to the hospital and pronounced brain dead following a drug overdose in 2009, and surgeons prepared to dissect her.

Brain death occurs when oxygen from blood is no longer delivered to the brain, causing activity to stop permanently and leaving no chance of the person waking up.

The Hollywood Gossip

Burns did not meet the criteria for brain death, however, despite a staff diagnosis of irreversible brain damage, according to hospital documentation.


A nurse performed a reflex test and found Burns’ toes was still reacting, and nurses also noticed that her nostrils flared, and she was breathing independently.

Nevertheless, she was then prepped for surgery for organ harvesting.

Her family agreed to take her off life support after doctors explained they thought she suffered “cardiac death,” the Syracuse Post-Standard reported.

Just as her organs were about to be removed, however, she woke up.

After Burns woke up, hospital officials decided that overdosing on multiple drugs could have accounted for her unresponsive state, ABC News reported.

Burns was discharged two weeks later, and the hospital was fined, according to the Post-Standard, citing New York’s Freedom of Information Law. 

An investigation revealed a number of mistakes in caring for Burns, including that one nurse suspected she was improving, alerted doctors and was ignored.

While clearly frightening, a mistake like this is “exceedingly rare,” American Academy of Neurology member Dr. Eelco Wijdicks told ABC News.

He explained that the Academy’s guidelines call for “about 25 tests for doctors to perform to be absolutely sure a patient won’t get better.”

It’s unclear how many of those tests were conducted in this case, but what was already a sad story ended on a different, but equally tragic note.

The woman’s mother said that her daughter wasn’t even upset about almost losing her life to a mistake, because she had been suicidal anyway.

Moreover, this brush with death didn’t change Burns’ mind about hastening her own demise, and she later committed suicide, reports indicate.

No word on whether her organs were harvested afterward.