Teen Organ Donor's Gift Turns Tragic

rare cancer transplant awry
Fifteen-year-old Alex Koehne died suddenly last year from what doctors thought was Meningitis.

"He said, 'Mommy, am I going to die?', and I said, 'No baby, they're going to make you all better,' his mother, Lisa Koehne remembers.

CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports his devastated parents took some solace in knowing that his death would give others new life. His mother says organ donation is very important to the family. "Alex always knew what he wanted."

Alex's liver went to a 52-year-old man. His pancreas to a 36-year-old woman. His kidneys went to two different men, one 46 and the other 64.

A month later, an autopsy revealed that Alex never had meningitis. He had a rare and fast-moving lymphoma cancer -- one that was now working its way through the bodies of four other people.

The organs were removed, but the lymphoma already had killed the recipients of his liver and pancreas. The two kidney patients had the kidneys removed and survived. They're now undergoing chemotherapy.

"When we found out that they died, our hearts went out to them," Koehne says tearfully.

"It's a very, very rare event," says Dr. Lewis Teperman, director of transplantation at New York University Medical Center, where two of the four organs ended up.

He co-authored an article about the case in the American Journal of Transplantation to warn other doctors.

"We're alerting people to the fact that if someone calls a death from bacterial meningitis and there is no bacteria, we're saying, you know what, let's back off for a little bit and reconsider whether we're going to use these organs," Teperman says.

Alex's hospital and the donor network responsible for the health of the organs won't do interviews about the case. But in a statement, the donor network urged potential donors not to "allow the horrible circumstances surrounding this rare case to affect their decision to sign the donor registry," which every year gives 22,000 people a second chance at life.

Medical privacy rules may prevent the family from ever knowing the names of the people who died. Now, Alex's parents want to keep others from suffering a similar fate.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.