When the Ramirez family of Orange County learned exactly a year ago that 19-year-old Eleno Ullua Ramirez had been killed by a still-unknown assailant, the family expressed some initial satisfaction that at least he had not died in vain.
Hospital officials, unable to identify the young man's beaten body or notify relatives, had transplanted his heart into an ailing former emergency room physician from Fountain Valley 1 day after Ramirez was hospitalized with fatal injuries.
Although distraught by the death of her brother, Maria Celsa Torres of Costa Mesa told a reporter at the time: "I think it was good what they did, taking my brother's heart. They saved another life."
Now, however, the Ramirez family asserts that they were wronged by officials of Hoag Hospital as well as others who failed to make earnest efforts to identify Ramirez, find his family members and get their permission for a heart transplant--the first ever done at the hospital.
Emotional Distress Suit
This week, they brought suit in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana seeking to hold the hospital, county and law enforcement officials liable for emotional distress and other damages as a result of that failure.
A spokeswoman for Hoag said Thursday that the hospital complied fully with a state law that allows medical personnel to transplant body organs of an unidentified dead person if, after 24 hours, a "diligent" search has failed to locate the victim's next of kin. The heart went to a former staff doctor at the hospital who is recovering today.
Hospital spokeswoman Gail Love, citing the legal action over the matter, would not elaborate on what steps the hospital took before moving ahead with a transplant that was to raise some ethical debate within the medical community. But she asserted: "The law is very specific, and we followed the law."
But the victim's family say it was not enough.
In an interview Thursday, the dead man's sister said in Spanish, "When I found out that they took out his heart, it was very painful for me. . . . It traumatizes you psychologically. No one in the family agreed with it."
The family's attorney in the lawsuit, explaining what appears to be a shift in attitude on the part of the family, said Ramirez's relatives have now had time, after the initial shock of his death, to evaluate the transplanting of Eleno Ramirez's heart.
Attorney Richard Torres, no relation to Maria Torres, also said that family members, who are immigrants from Mexico, may have wanted to be polite in their dealings with hospital, police and media officials, and also may have been hindered by a language barrier.
Attorney Torres said he was contacted last May by the victim's father, Benito Ramirez, who was visibly upset by the events that followed his only son's death.
Torres said he initially was reluctant to take the case, but that the family's intense grief convinced him to represent them in their legal action.
"They went through a horrifying experience," he said. "There is something inherently unjust that has happened to this family. They have been wronged.
"In the Hispanic culture," Torres said, "there's something about 'having heart'-- corazon-- that remains very dear and special; it's not simply a body part that would be readily given up."
The attorney maintained that hospital officials, assuming the young Latino man to be an indigent, "made hardly an effort at all to identify him and find his family."
Norton Humphreys, the retired Fountain Valley doctor who received Ramirez's heart, said of the lawsuit: "This really saddens me. I was so happy to have a new heart and have another chance at life, and I thought they were satisfied too. I thought this was all put to rest."
In addition to the hospital, the Ramirezes' lawsuit also names the county, the city of Costa Mesa and individual officials as co-defendants.
Costa Mesa police investigated the suspected homicide and sought to identify the victim after he was discovered unconscious, his skull fractured, in the parking lot of a local convenience store in the early morning hours of April 19, 1988.
He carried no wallet or formal identification, save for a medallion around his neck with the initials "E.R." He was admitted to the hospital as a John Doe and later was declared brain-dead.
Costa Mesa Police Lt. Sam Cordeiro, who helped oversee the department's investigation, said in response to the lawsuit that the police had nothing to do with the decision on the heart transplant.
Cordeiro said that, as he recalls that period, police had little difficulty in identifying the victim through computer fingerprinting within about 48 hours, after the heart had already been transplanted. "The real controversy was that the heart transplant was done quicker than it should have been--at least that was the opinion of some people," he said.
Times staff writer Bob Schwartz also contributed to this story.