Unvaccinated Kidney and Heart Patients Denied Transplants Get Day in Court with Michigan Hospital
Unvaccinated Kidney and Heart Patients Denied Transplants Get Day in Court with Michigan Hospital

By Steven Kovac

A Michigan judge will soon decide if 73-year-old Ross Barranco can be denied a donated kidney because he won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I just don’t see the logic of it,” stated Barranco in an interview with The Epoch Times. “Everybody knows an organ transplant procedure requires the nearly complete suppression of a recipient’s immune system so the body won’t reject it.

“Then why do I need to be immunized against COVID before the operation?”

When asked if he thought the vaccine would make any difference in his prognosis, he replied, “Yeah, the vax can kill me.

“To qualify for a transplant both of my kidneys have to be functioning at 20 percent or less. What if the vax destroys the remaining function before the operation? If it does, I’m done.

“The jab does absolutely nothing beneficial for a transplant patient,” he said.

Michigan religious liberty activist Ross Barranco. (Courtesy of Ross Barranco)

Given the current COVID-19 testing capability, it remains unclear why transplant patients cannot be tested for COVID-19 before the operation. A negative result could then green-light the procedure.

It is also unclear why, given the data showing numerous fully vaccinated people have come down with COVID-19 multiple times, the shot is still being regarded by some hospitals as an immunization.

Barranco’s legal team made reference to a 2021 survey of 200 transplant centers across the country.

Of the 140 that responded to the survey, only half required transplant candidates to take a COVID-19 vaccine regimen.

“The vax can hardly be deemed medically necessary if half of the responding transplant centers are not requiring it,” said Deborah Catalano of the Liberty Counsel, a lawyer who is tracking hospital transplant policies and is familiar with many similar cases to that of Barranco and Shier.

The Liberty Counsel is a non-profit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to upholding religious liberty and Christian values.

Medical questions and safety concerns aside, Barranco, a Roman Catholic, actually refused the vaccine on religious grounds.

He said his faith and conscience do not permit him to receive a shot that he is convinced was developed using body parts obtained from aborted babies and has fetal tissue in its ingredients.

Vax-up or Else

On Feb. 1, 2022, Barranco received what he perceived as an “ultimatum” from the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

“There’s an active list and a holding list for patients awaiting a transplant. At the time, I was on the holding list.

“That’s when the hospital gave me three months to get three COVID shots, or they would throw me off the list entirely,” said Barranco.

“I refused, and they threw me off. That’s when I contacted an attorney.”

Mary Clare Fischer, a public relations representative with the University of Michigan Health Transplant Center in Ann Arbor, outlined the hospital’s position in an email to The Epoch Times.

Students walk across the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Jan. 17, 2003. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

“Our policy aims to protect transplant recipients from complications of COVID-19 infection, which has had devastating effects in our patient population.

“Immunocompromised solid organ transplant recipients have among the highest risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 infection.

“At present, all of the nearly 1,000 adult patients active on our waiting list are vaccinated against COVID-19 infection.

“As is true of all of our Transplant Center policies and processes, this policy is a critical step in partnering with our patients to maximize the safety of our transplant recipients and provide them the best opportunity to regain their health and quality of life through the gift of transplantation,” she said.

Fischer stated that the transplant center is one of a “significant number” of American hospitals that require the COVID-19 vaccination for adult heart, lung, liver, pancreas, and kidney transplant patients on their active lists.

The University of Michigan Hospital policy exempts critically ill patients who may not have time to complete the three-phase vaccine protocol, as well as patients with prior vaccine allergies.

Why Not Katie?

Katie Shier, Barranco’s co-plaintiff in the case, is an unvaccinated 35-year-old mother of five who is a candidate for a heart transplant.

Katie and Ron Shier and family. (Courtesy of Katie Shier)

She is being kept alive by a ventricular assist device that has developed an infection, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, David Peters of the Pacific Justice Institute.

The Pacific Justice Institute is a non-profit legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties.

The Institute is representing Shier and Barannco free of charge.

Shier, a Roman Catholic, objects to taking the COVID-19 vaccination on religious grounds.

On June 29, 2021, Shier was granted placement on the transplant waiting list.

U of M Hospital’s subsequently adopted mandatory vaccination policy now precludes her from undergoing the heart transplant necessary to save her life.

Peters told The Epoch Times that, due to the low functioning of Shier’s heart, at any time she could slip into “imminent or immediate danger and be rushed to the hospital” and maybe qualify for a transplant under the hospital’s vaccination exemption for the critically ill.

“Sadly, it looks like that is something the court will have to order. We have emergency motions ready to go,” said Peters.

Shier told The Epoch Times in a phone interview on Jan. 27, 2023, “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had much time to think about my situation.

“It is in God’s hands. All I want to do is do God’s will. After much prayer, the Lord led me not to give in, but to file the lawsuit.

“I’m fighting for three things.

“The doctors said I have an infection that can only be cured by a heart transplant.

“I believe it’s wrong to require someone to take a dangerous vaccine, so I want to see an end to the mandates.

“And, most importantly, I do not want to take any vaccine or medication that has been tainted by abortion.

“Two of the major pharmaceutical companies making the vaccine developed it from the HEK-293 fetal cell line.

“Some vaccines are known to have fetal tissue in them, and some tests are being conducted on still-living fetuses without anesthesia,” she alleged.

“I’m fighting for a person’s right to refuse any vaccine that is associated with abortion,” she added.

Peters told The Epoch Times that some people misconstrue the case as a medical malpractice suit against U of M Hospital.

“It is not about malpractice. It is about due process rights.

“Both Ross and Katie regard UMH as one of the best hospitals in the world.

“For that reason, Katie won’t go elsewhere. She wants her new heart to come from UMH.”

Barranco told The Epoch Times that he checked out another transplant center, but he prefers UMH.

A ‘Rollercoaster’ Ordeal

Barranco, a petroleum geological engineer for 46 six years, has battled high blood pressure and diabetes for decades—the things he says caused his kidney dysfunction.

In September 2020, he was told to start investigating the various types of dialysis.

“I began talking to U of M in 2021.

“Eventually, they called me in for an in-person exam. They found both of my kidneys were not working right.

“The doctors do not want to remove a partially functioning kidney while it is still contributing, so the plan was to add a third kidney.

“Soon, I was approved to be on their holding list,” Barranco said.

Barranco is not easily excited by the ups and downs of his circumstances.

In 2016, his hopes for relief plummeted when a blood test revealed he had contracted an autoimmune disease that attacked his lungs and kidneys.

He was placed on chemotherapy, which worked, and he recovered.

“That happened before I could begin dialysis.

“My plan always has been to skip dialysis if I could, because when it fails, as it eventually always does, that’s the end of the line,” he said.

After his recovery, Barranco’s hopes soared again when U of M Hospital officially put him on its active list.

Concern for Others

When his kidneys amazingly began to improve in response to some lifestyle changes, Barranco requested that the hospital drop him back down to the holding list, “so others more in immediate need of a transplant could take my place on the active list,” he said.

He also insisted, against the hospital’s recommendation, that he wait for a cadaver donor rather than a living donor.

“I figured a living donor would be reduced to one good kidney. He or she could possibly die on the operating table or die from post-op complications. It is a risky operation.

“Or, what if later in life the living donor developed high blood pressure or diabetes with only one kidney?

“There I’d be, doing just fine, but the person that helped me would be suffering. What about him or her?” said Barranco.

Barranco told The Epoch Times his goal is to have no more COVID-19 vaccine mandates, “so that future patients won’t have to go through what I have gone through.”

Political or Medical?

President Joe Biden issued an order through the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in November 2021 that would eventually result in the denial of organ transplants to unvaccinated patients like Barranco and Shier.

The federal order mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers and those professionally associated with them was narrowly permitted to stand by the United States Supreme Court in late January 2022.

Just prior to that decision, on Jan. 13, 2022, the High Court struck down the Biden-ordered Occupational Safety and Health Administration Emergency Temporary Standard mandating that private employers with more than 100 employees require that their workers receive the COVID-19 vaccines.

It was that February that Barranco received notice from U of M Hospital that he had three months to get all three shots or be completely disqualified for a kidney transplant.

“We jumped through all their hoops, and the hospital changed the rules in the middle of the game. They threw us off the active list.

“For people like Katie Shier and me, the message was clear—get vaccinated or die,” said Barranco.

The Lawsuit

 In May 2022, attorneys from the Pacific Justice Institute filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims.

(Right to Left) Attorney David Peters, Katie Shier, Ron Shier, Ross Barranco, and Gay Long outside the courtroom in Lansing, Mich. on Dec. 1, 2022. (Courtesy of Ross Barranco)

They asked Judge Brock A. Swartzle to order the University of Michigan Board of Regents and the hospital to restore their clients, Barranco and Shier, to the transplant list, along with “all other people similarly situated.”

The hospital’s denial of medical services to the plaintiffs and its alleged refusal to consider their request for religious exemption are the reasons cited for the declaratory relief.

Barranco and Shier’s attorneys are also seeking monetary and compensatory damages for the “severe mental anguish and emotional distress” their clients suffered in the process.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ right to refuse medications or treatment, as well as their rights to due process, privacy, bodily integrity and autonomy, and the free exercise of their religious liberty.

The plaintiffs’ case is based on the “Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and its application to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Their pleadings also cite the Michigan Constitution, which reads in part, “The civil and political rights, privileges, and capacities of no person shall be diminished or enlarged on account of religious belief.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs also referred to the Michigan Civil Rights Act, which prohibits the denial of public accommodations because of religion.

The Act defines “Place of public accommodation” as “a business, or an educational, refreshment, entertainment, recreation, health, or transportation facility, or institution of any kind, whether licensed or not, whose goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations are extended, offered, sold, or otherwise made available to the public.”

The complaint further alleges that the hospital’s implementation of the vaccination mandate policy was done under pressure from the federal government and is not based on the medical needs of the plaintiffs.

Peters told The Epoch Times, “The Biden order effectively banned hospitals from exercising their own independent medical judgment in favor of federal agencies.”

The boards of big research hospitals are very aware of where most of their grant money comes from, Peters added.

“State governments have also been pressured into threatening medical professionals with the revocation of their licenses for non-compliance.

“Hospitals and doctors need to get back to using their own independent medical judgment based on what is best for each individual patient,” he added.

As of press time, the case is still pending in the Michigan Court of Claims.

A Life-or-Death Decision

“By removing Plaintiffs from the active Transplant Waiting List the University of Michigan Health System and the Transplant Board made a life-or-death decision without the Plaintiffs’ consent and removed an existing right without any type of due process,” the complaint says.

Plaintiffs also contend that there are no demonstrable, peer-reviewed studies or medical justification for removing them from the transplant waiting list.

“No such research exists showing that vaccinations are necessary or beneficial for transplant patients,” says the complaint.

The complaint also alleges that the University of Michigan Health System never met with the plaintiffs in an effort to make reasonable accommodations for their religious exception, as required by law.

University Wants the Case Dismissed

In a motion for summary disposition, attorneys for the university hospital asked Judge Swartzle to throw out Barranco and Shier’s case.

The university is claiming sovereign immunity, federal preemption, and the failure of the plaintiffs to state a claim as the grounds for dismissal of the case.

According to legaldictionary.net, sovereign immunity “refers to a ruling body, such as the U.S. government, being immune from civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution. … no one can sue the government without having the government’s consent. [It] comes from British common law, which provided the idea that the King is immune from charges of wrongdoing.”

Sovereign immunity is applied only to the federal and state governments with few exceptions.

Federal preemption is the legal doctrine that holds that federal laws are higher than state laws and take precedence over them.

Because the University of Michigan Health System asserts that its transplant program is governed by federal transplant laws, it claims it cannot be sued for alleged violations of the Michigan Constitution or state civil rights statutes, and that any legal action would have to be filed in a federal court.

Peters told The Epoch Times that if the case is tossed out of the Michigan Court of Claims, he is prepared to take it to the federal courts, and all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

Other Options

“If I was a patient on a list for an organ transplant, I would not want to go through litigation. Stage four patients may not have time to do so,” said Catalano, the senior litigation coordinator at Liberty Counsel.

“There are alternatives to a lawsuit. There are other places patients can go for a transplant.”

Catalano told The Epoch Times that over the last 14 months, Liberty Counsel has had 73 requests for legal assistance from unvaccinated transplant candidates from around the country who have been denied the lifesaving procedure they need.

“In our pre-litigation strategy, we first send to a hospital a Demand Letter, which is mostly informational. That usually leads to a series of communications in which we educate them about the latest developments in medical science and law regarding transplants and vaccine mandates,” Catalano said.

“The medical community has too long been deferential to CDC protocols,” she added. “As a result of our educational efforts, we are now seeing deactivated patients reactivated without going through litigation.”

Catalano stated that science is changing rapidly and new, clear, data are emerging from reputable studies on things like COVID tests, antibody testing, and natural immunity.

“We suggest hospitals do more individual patient assessments that consider such things,” she said. “Sometimes we find ourselves reminding health systems to honor their own policies on patient rights, informed consent, and respect.”

Hospitals that Accept Religious Exemptions

Tennessee, by state statute, has outlawed discrimination on the basis of vaccination status, and Texas has done so by an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Along with Texas and Tennessee, Florida and Louisiana have emerged as destination points for unvaccinated patients from other states seeking organ transplants, according to Catalano.

Liberty Counsel researchers have compiled a list of hospitals from nearly a dozen states that it believes have no vaccination requirement or that have granted religious exemptions to transplant recipients.

“About 30 percent of the 73 requesters for legal assistance from Liberty Counsel have never needed a Demand Letter. Instead, the patients traveled to accepting states to obtain transplants,” said Catalano.

“We are finding that more unvaccinated patients are receiving needed transplants without a lawsuit than with one.

“There is hope. There is a choice. Things can be done. There are places patients can go.”

Public Pressure and Prayer Help

 Some of the success legal foundation lawyers are having on behalf of transplant candidates around the country is being credited to an informed and active citizenry.

“Courageous religious objectors are responsible for making the vaccination mandates unsuccessful and putting patients back in the driver’s seat,” said Catalano.

Barranco told The Epoch Times he felt his case was helped by the 24 supporters that this month drove 70 miles to attend his first hearing at a courthouse in Lansing.

Guardians of Freedom Michigan demonstrators protest COVID-19 vaccination mandates in Macomb County, Mich. on July 17, 2021. (Courtesy of Joie Vawter)

A citizens’ group called Guardians of Freedom Michigan (GOFM) conducted a prayer vigil in the building before the proceedings began.

“You better believe the judge noticed them. He not only acknowledged their presence in the courtroom; but went out of his way to explain things to them,” he said.

GOFM co-founder, Joie Vawter of Walled Lake, who led the prayer vigil, told The Epoch Times, “We support the case that Ross and Katie have against the University of Michigan Hospital for denying their life-affirming transplants because [they] have chosen to decline the experimental COVID shots,” adding, “Religious exemption … is first and foremost a God-given inalienable right [and is] constitutionally protected.”

The Medical-Industrial Complex

Illona Rugg, a GOFM activist and Barannco supporter whose husband was fired after 23 years of service as an Ann Arbor firefighter for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, said, “It bothers me to see them chiseling away at our freedom. People need to stand up against tyranny.

“Our very lives are being held hostage by the medical-industrial complex.”

As previously reported, hospitals say they are following recommendations set by the American Society of Transplantation and the United Network of Organ Sharing.

Both organizations list pharmaceutical giant Sanofi as one of their corporate sponsors.

Sanofi has partnered with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson in producing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Merck CSL Behring, which partnered with AstraZeneca to produce its COVID-19 vaccine; and Novartis, which partnered with Pfizer, are also corporate sponsors of the American Society of Transplantation.

The United Network of Organ Sharing receives 10 percent of its funding from another active promoter of the COVID-19 vaccine—the federal government.

Alice Giordano contributed to this report.

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